Novice Hiker Learns Weighty Lessons


Shimmering sycamores line the banks of the creek that bears their name.

Shimmering sycamores line the banks of the creek that bears their name.

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I should have known something was not quite right when I stepped in a hole where a rock used to be. I landed under the palo verde tree next to my truck in the parking lot at Sycamore Canyon.

Not the drunken, brawling, dirt-bike-riding canyon on Highway 87, but the Apache hiding, Spanish mining, canyon of lost gold near Clarkdale, Ariz. — reputedly Geronimo’s northern stronghold. Today, his warriors’ faces look etched on the boulders high on the cliffs, perhaps guarding the gold spoken of in history books and treasure-hunting tales.

I’d heard Dean shuffling through the backpacks as I stood looking over the edge into the lush green riparian of Sycamore Creek. I heard him mock my external frame pack and gear, a good 20 pounds less than his modern backpacking setup.

I climbed to my feet and shouldered my huge backpack. It seemed very heavy. Tall, skinny Dean slid into his with the grace of experience and started down Parsons Trail. My lost balance found me and I followed.

“You gotta get lighter gear,” Dean hounded as we walked a well-worn path through rugged granite boulders on a steep decline to the shady river bottom and Summer Spring.

I scoffed at Dean. My antique military surplus, down-filled sleeping bag cost 20 bucks. His synthetic, high-class mummy bag cost $220. It made no difference to me that his weighed under five pounds and occupied one fourth of his compressed pack. Mine weighed 11 pounds and hogged nearly half of my Mac-Truck-sized main compartment. My pillow took up the other half; silly Dean brought a pillowcase to stuff with his spare clothes. Ha, I win.

Summer Spring is a four-foot hole in the canyon floor where perfectly clear water bubbles up through dancing hypnotic pebbles, then trickles softly through exposed lichen-covered tree roots and into Sycamore Creek. The place is dark, moist and quietly alive with the smells of damp fresh earth, and disintegrating hollow logs.

When I arrived, Dean lay prone staring into the hole, watching the pebbles dance. “You got water in top of your pack?” he asked.

Sore-toed from the decline and poorly fitted shoes; I plopped down next to the spring so Dean could retrieve water from my pack. He rummaged, removed and replaced my heavy, outdated gear until he found water, then latched the flap. I stood, caught my balance, and headed down the trail.

We passed the huge, deep swimming hole where naked, hairy people with dreadlocks and beads jumped from cliffs. We stopped to look through the old Spanish iron gate at the mouth of a 17th century mine. “There is an arrastra on the flat above the mine.” Dean said, as he fetched another drink from my pack.

I stood and my legs told me my pack weighed too much. My inflatable air mattress and oversized tent hung from the pack frame. Dean planned to sleep on a three-quarter length Thermorest self-inflating sleeping pad that weighed four ounces. His tiny tent weighed the same. “You look like the Beverly Hillbilly’s truck.” Dean teased as we walked upstream out from under the canopy of the closely netted sycamores.

I imagined the calvary charging up the riverbed in the hot sun, horse hooves kicking up sand and clanging on rocks. Then Apache arrows and bullets cut them down, killed them in mid-stride. The U.S. Cavalry couldn’t catch Apaches who reached the rugged and steep Sycamore Canyon. They built invisible fortresses covering the mouths of caves high on the walls, then pulled up their rope ladders when chasers approached. Ruins still dot the canyon, but erosion claimed most of the structures.

We reached Parson Springs where we planned to camp. Parched and exhausted, I dropped to the sand. My pack wrestled with me, but eventually I slid from its grasp and opened the flap. Dean removed his pack with one slick motion and quietly strolled out of camp.

Things didn’t feel right inside my pack as my hand searched for water. I grabbed something odd and pulled it out… a rock about as big as a softball. Then another. Clearly, one belonged in the hole I’d stepped in back at the truck. I had another for each drink Dean had drunk from my pack.

A chuckle came from the bushes, “If your pack weighed less, you would have felt the rocks.”

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