Date With Mooney

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200-foot high Mooney Falls

I can still hear it plain as day – her urgent silence against the deafening roar of the falls – and it chills me to the bone.

Me: “Where is Dan (my husband)?”

Chris (his sister): mouth moving, but I can’t hear what she’s saying through the noise of the waterfall…no sense of urgency, I assure myself as I glance again towards the pool where Dan had been frolicking like a child not two moments earlier…she’s walking towards me slowly…she’d be more agitated if there were a problem…

Me: “Where is Dan?” Jogging towards her now, realizing my husband is nowhere in sight – a sick feeling beginning to twist itself in my stomach, my worst fears inching closer and closer to the surface, about to be realized.

Chris starts walking faster, begins gesturing, pointing at the falls. I see her mouth moving but still can’t make out the words. As she nears, fragments of her voice begin to reach me through the roar of the falls.

“Danny’s in trouble!”

Oh my God. My stomach turns.  No! I can’t believe I’m hearing this.

My jog turns to a run as I rush past Chris and her husband Paul, who had been playing in the falls with Dan, and race closer to the edge of the pool beneath the waterfall. All the while, searching wildly for any sign of Dan – a bobbing head – his face above the water- a hand – anything.

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Makeshift Warning

Only minutes before, I had been languidly washing my hair in the pool that breaks the massive 200-foot drop of Mooney Falls, deep in the Havasupai Indian Reservation near the Grand Canyon. Submerging my head in the frigid water – silence…except for my heartbeat – only to rise above the water again to the crash of the falls. The whole time willing myself not to be overly concerned about Dan and Paul, who were swimming close to the waterfall’s base.  Too close for my comfort.

He was an adult after all. Did I really need to tell him to be careful? His sarcastic response to past admonitions rang only too clear…”Thanks for reminding me, I was actually NOT going to be careful until you said that.”

Up to this point in our trip, a trip replete with waterfalls, I had fought the urge to comment on how dangerous they could be.  That the depression gauged out by the falls was like a huge washing machine, trapping, churning and rotating anything unlucky enough to get caught in its cycle down into the depths of that impossibly clear blue pool.

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Look closely above the ladder at the bottom for the route up.

At 200 feet, Mooney Falls is the largest waterfall in Havasupai (Cataract) Canyon, a side canyon that meets up with the Colorado River and Grand Canyon proper about eight miles downstream. Mooney was named for an unfortunate miner who in 1882 had met his demise at the bottom of the falls after falling from a rope while trying to descend.

At the time there was no other discernible way down to the bottom of the falls, so Mooney’s friends were forced to leave his body to the elements on the canyon floor. It was only when, eleven months later, one of them noticed a local Native American wearing Mooney’s boots that they were shown a precarious route down a crevice in the canyon wall.

Unwilling to risk the dicey-looking descent, they attempted to make it more navigable by blasting a small tunnel through the rock, chipping crude steps, and drilling in iron spikes.  The white-knuckle route, slick with spray and with the rusty chains linking the iron spikes the only handholds, still serves as the only way down to the bottom of the falls and is the one visitors follow today.  At their own risk, I might add, and as a foreboding sign just before the initial descent warns.  It is not a trip for the fainthearted, nor for those afraid of heights.

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Making our way down the crude, slippery steps

On our first trip to Havasupai in 2010, after hiking nine grueling miles and trekking through the mile-deep campground, we got our first glimpse over the edge of the falls – and what magnificence we beheld!  We were immediately captivated, and have returned faithfully every year over Labor Day weekend, spending three or four days in the veritable paradise tucked away like a land lost to time.

Now, this “paradise” threatened to become a place of nightmares; a place where the unthinkable, the unspeakable, was unfolding right before my very eyes.

As I jogged across the gravelly shore and rounded Mooney’s base, I thought I saw a flash of flesh and curly hair beneath – and directly behind – the falls.  In a moment I caught a better glimpse of Dan, now clinging to the slippery rock wall carved out of the cliff by the falls, and heard his cry as he lost his tenuous grip and Mooney pulled him back into its grasp.

In a panic, I entered the frigid pool at the base of the falls, getting about waist high before spray and mist obscured my view.  The strong undercurrent pulling me towards the falls broke through my panic and I realized it was not safe to continue.

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Haze created by the force of the falls

Oh my God, oh my God…I repeated over and over in my mind, as I stood there racking my brain for a solution, feeling more helpless than I ever had in my life.  It was the end of the holiday weekend and, unlike the past three days, the campground was deserted.  On this afternoon, we were completely alone at the base of Mooney Falls.

Suddenly, before Chris or I knew what was happening, Paul struck out slowly yet determinedly through the water towards the falls, hugging the rock face of the cliff from which the powerful torrent catapulted.  As the water reached his waist, he turned towards the cliff and carefully selected two handholds, testing them before taking another step.

The next moment, Mooney spat Dan out again, and he kicked weakly, clawing at the slippery rocks before finding a handhold.  He was losing strength, I could see it in his face, and in the way the pull of the falls played tug of war with his body as he clung to the rocks for dear life.

In what seemed to take an eternity, Paul painstakingly made his way hand-over-hand, closer and closer to the spot where Dan clung to the wall, in danger of disappearing once more as the suction from the falls slowly loosened his grip.

Paul inched along patiently until he was about a foot away, just on the other side of a small rock abutment.  With a swift movement, he reached out and grabbed one of Dan’s hands.  A mighty tug brought Dan’s hand around the abutment and placed it on a hidden handhold, holding it there until he was sure of Dan’s grip.  Dan remained still for a moment, his lower body drifting back towards the falls…

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World of perpetual mist at the bottom of Mooney

Finally, with one last burst of strength, Dan relinquished his left-handed grip and pulled himself around the rock outcropping towards Paul, finding another solid handhold with his left hand. I held my breath.  Paul took Dan’s his right hand again, and carefully placed it, again not letting go until he was sure Dan could hold on.  They continued this way, one hand at a time, until Dan could finally stand on his own in the swirling water.

I will never forget his face as he turned towards me and our eyes connected.  Literally white as a ghost, he had the look of someone who had come face to face with his mortality, and was in disbelief that his life had been mercifully allowed to continue.

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Posing before the drama unfolded..

As he stumbled, shaking, through the shallow water, I ran to him and bear-hugged his freezing body.  We wrapped him in towels and helped him to shore.  After some time, we eventually made our way back up the slippery route to the campground.  Before Dan started up the rickety ladder he turned and gave Mooney one last look.  I saw him shudder visibly, and we embraced as a wave of emotion overcame him.

As we held each other there at the base of Mooney in that remote canyon, we were both engulfed by a feeling of insignificance, coupled with a new respect, in the face of such a great force of nature.  At the same time we felt an overwhelming gratitude for all the gifts in our lives, and for Life itself.  This time, unlike that day in 1882, Mooney did not win.  Dan had been given a second chance, and we both came away with a new appreciation of life that will stay with us for the rest of our days.

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Adventure in the Sierra Ancha
‘Quick Jaunt’ to Cooper Forks
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‘Quick Jaunt’ to Cooper Forks

I didn’t breath a word to anyone, but as we climbed down out of Pueblo Canyon, I was secretly thinking to myself, “there’s NO WAY we’re doing another hike tomorrow.”  The plan had been to hit Pueblo Canyon, the harder and longer of the hikes, on day one and follow up with a quick out-and-back to what the guidebook called ‘Cooper Forks’ the next morning, before heading home to Phoenix.

Early Morning Campfire

In that moment, on the tail end of what I will officially deem “one of the hardest hikes I’ve ever done,” (Adventure in the Sierra Ancha) I mistakenly believed that if I was feeling the pain, everyone else must certainly be feeling it.  So when our silent descent was broken by random banter about the following morning’s hike I just smiled and nodded diplomatically.

Morning dawned bright and early; I laid with my sleeping bag up over my face for as long as possible, until I could hear that everyone was up except for me.  I am not a morning person, so was a bit slow coming out of the bag entirely but once I got moving around I began to revive. I was still quite confident that we’d probably putz around the campfire for a while before reaching a unanimous decision to break camp and head back home a little early.

I dressed and freshened up a bit, and came around the side of the truck to see everyone standing slightly beyond the fire, shading their eyes and squinting intently out across the wide canyon that stretched below our campsite.  As I approached, John handed me the guidebook and pointed to a hill that rose steeply from the creek at the canyon bottom to the base of a sheer rock cliff.

View without binoculars – huh?

“That’s where we’re going, see up there at the base of the cliff?”

“Huh?”  I glanced at the guidebook, then back up at the large hill.  John offered me the binoculars, and after scanning the hillside for a bit I found the cliff face and trained my view down to where it met the bare slope.  Nestled inside what appeared to be a gash running down the cliff was a cliff dwelling, perfectly centered in the narrow opening.

Zooming in on the cliff face and cave

“Wow, that looks pretty far…” I trailed off as I realized how lame I sounded; it was obvious that the plan was to do it – and nobody else was complaining.

“Well, the guidebook says it’s only a half mile down to the creek, then another half mile to where we hit Cooper Forks Canyon, and then another half mile up to the structure.”  John assured.  OK, that didn’t really sound too bad – really just a quick jaunt.

If I hadn’t been so eager to believe it was a short hike I would have realized those distances made no sense based on what I was seeing with my own eyes.  Regardless, there was no way I was going to be the only one who didn’t want to go.

Brian…examining bear scat?

I gathered up my gear a bit reluctantly and followed everyone down the dirt road where we met up with the old mining trail again, this time heading down-slope towards the creek.  The warm sun on my face, singing birds, and flowers blooming all around quickly captivated me and I was suddenly really glad we were on another adventure.

We hadn’t gone a quarter mile when some strange-looking droppings in the trail prompted me to wonder aloud what type of animal might have produced them…My husband Dan swiftly delivered the first blow to my serene state of mind when he revealed (after some hemming and hawing) that it was probably bear.  Apparently, he and John had already had this conversation the day before when they came across the same thing multiple times on the trail to Pueblo Canyon (Adventure in the Sierra Ancha).  When John told Dan it looked like bear scat, Dan had sworn John to secrecy – bears happen to be my biggest fear ever.

The second blow came when we reached the creek.  There, marked clearly in the sandy bank, was the BIGGEST paw print I had ever seen. “OMG, the bear’s down here!”  was my first thought.  However the number of toes must not have matched up because Bill joyfully exclaimed that it was actually a mountain lion…”And he must be a big sucker!”

Where I slept the night before

Numbness crept up my body as I furtively scanned the banks and the encroaching forest, positive the animal in question was watching and waiting just beyond the treeline.  Nobody else seemed to be that worried, so I tried to mask my terror, but in reality I could not get out of the forested area near the creek fast enough.   I cringed thinking about where I had slept the night before, totally exposed and ripe for the picking.

As usual, my fierce yet shameful sense of self-preservation took over.  In a carefully-calculated strategic move, I fell in behind Bill and John, with my husband Dan and his friend Brian from Jersey trailing behind me.  My thought was, if we surprised the mountain lion, Bill and John would create enough of a distraction for me to have a chance – and if the mountain lion came up behind us, the same logic would apply from the back end.

Crossing the creek

In loose formation, we boulder-hopped across the creek and up the other bank.   Trying to stay close to the creek, we slowly made our way among the boulders and slippery rocks, but were eventually forced by a tangle of impenetrable vegetation to veer right and up onto a little terrace that rose above the river.

Low mesquite trees created a canopy over the flat terrace, interspersed with the occasional prickly pear or creosote bush.  I imagined that this would have been a perfect place for the ancient Anchans to live, overlooking the river and all, but I didn’t notice any signs of habitation except for a few possible stone alignments that may or may not have marked the location of ancient structures.

So close, but yet so far…

Finally, we came to the edge of the terrace, where Cooper Forks Canyon intersected the creek.  Unfortunately, by this time we were quite high above the creek and the canyon floor, without any obvious way down – the problem was that we needed to cross Cooper Forks Canyon.  Before I knew what was happening, Bill disappeared down the side of the terrace, to the sound of cracking branches and cascading rocks.  A moment later, John followed.

I gingerly stepped forward a few feet in the direction they had gone, looking for handholds.  Just then Brian spoke up and said his heel had been bothering him for a while, and he felt he’d be better off going back to camp to wait for us instead of pressing on.  Before he had even finished his sentence, Dan chimed in, offering to accompany him back to camp.  Bill and John were already out of earshot.  I craned my neck, trying to see where they had gone, to no avail.  Looking at Dan and Brian, then back down the steep terrace, I reluctantly decided to push ahead; at this point I just couldn’t stomach giving up and turning back after coming so far.

Strange conglomerate rocks lined the trail

Bidding Dan and Brian farewell, I returned to the task at hand; negotiating a way down the slippery, vegetation-choked dirt bank.  Seeing no obvious route, I finally launched into a brisk downhill slide, grasping wildly at any plant within reach (most of which happened to be covered in either spines or thorns).

I made it down about 20 feet and finally caught sight of Bill and John waiting in the wash below.   After another 20 treacherous feet of basically skiing on dirt, I finally reached the wash and the base of the steep hill leading up to the cliffs and the ruins.

I can’t lie; at this point I was secretly envying Dan and Brian, imagining them kicking back with a cool drink at the campsite, leisurely watching the remote hillside, waiting for us to appear.  As we wearily crossed the wash, Bill paused for a moment before staring up at the steep opposite bank.  “You know,” he said, “I’m feeling a bit tired myself – I think I’m going to go join those guys at the camp site and sit this one out.”

John and I looked at each other.  For a brief moment, I thought I might get my guilty wish and we’d all turn back.  But I could see John was excited to continue, and despite my pure physical exhaustion, I did really want to see the cave and the ruins first-hand.  So after making sure our walkie-talkie was synched with Bill’s, we agreed to contact him when we reached the ruin.

Descending towards the cliff base and cave

The cliff and cave appeared tantalizingly close at just over a half mile away, but this final stretch involved a 1200 foot climb, and to quote the trusty guide book, “most of the route follows no recognizable trail”.  For once, the book was astoundingly accurate.  John and I started up the steep winding trail that switch-backed up the base of the hill.  Within minutes, the trail had dwindled to nothing and we stood staring out over a rocky, sparsely-vegetated slope.

In the absence of a trail, we opted against pushing ahead on a steep route directly towards the ruins, instead choosing a more gradual approach which would take us left along the hillside and a bit out of our way before (hopefully) veering back up towards the cliff and our destination.  We were encouraged when we eventually picked up a faint trail again, but after about 20 minutes it was obvious that it was taking us around the mountain and not up towards the cliff.

Our first close-up view

Abandoning the trail to nowhere, we bushwhacked up through a copse of mesquites to the crest of a low rise, hoping we’d be able to see our destination and adjust our path accordingly.  Frustration mounted as, no matter how high we climbed, a clear view of the cliff we needed to reach eluded us.

We had nearly reached the top of the mountain without catching even a glimpse of the cliff face when we suddenly had an ‘ah-ha’ moment and pulled out the camera.  Examining the pictures we had taken earlier from below and matching up distinctive landmarks, it became obvious we had climbed too high and were actually above the ruins!

Cautiously but excitedly, we began to descend towards the edge of the hill, and where (based on the pictures) we thought the cliff should be.  After a harrowing, albeit quick, slide down a field of shattered rocks that rolled and shifted under our feet with a sound like breaking glass, we finally rounded the corner of the cliff and found ourselves directly below the ruins.

Ancient camouflage

Looking up in awe, we beheld an amazing sight!  Blending perfectly into the natural openings in the cliff were the most well-constructed ancient dwellings I have ever seen.  And compared to the structures in Pueblo Canyon, this small enclave of 10-12 rooms brought new meaning to the word ‘inaccessible’.

After personally experiencing the difficulty of reaching these dwellings, it was hard to imagine what prompted the Anchan people to expend the time and effort required to build in this remote, waterless cliff side – a question that archaeologists are still trying to figure out.

As John and I spent the next hour joyously exploring this amazing place, there was no question as to whether the trek was worth it – bears and mountain lions notwithstanding.

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Adventure in the Sierra Ancha

It was a motley crew that set out from our house early Saturday morning.  I had proposed this little expedition after reading an amazing article about the Sierra Ancha in Arizona Highways magazine a few months ago, and was really jazzed when a few people actually seemed serious about accompanying us.

Fellow Traveler

Aside from my husband Dan and I, our group included our longtime petroglyph-documenting mentor and camping-in-the-outback guru Bill, an amazing man in his 70s who has the body and stamina of a 20-year old, and John, a fellow rock art buff who has also been accompanying Bill for years on the many petroglyph-documenting camping trips out in Arizona’s Tonto National Forest.

The oddball of the group (in an outdoorsy sense) was Brian, Dan’s best friend from Jersey.  Perhaps inconveniently for him, our trip just happened to fall on the weekend he was to arrive for a week’s stay.  After going back and forth with Dan as to whether Brian would be up for something like this or if we should just reschedule, Dan decided he might as well ask him.  Brian, in his typical non-committal manner, let us know he was up for the trip.  Actually I think his exact words were, ‘Eh – yeah…I’ll go.’

His response didn’t carry a lot of emotion, but this was a brave move on Brian’s part.  He had only ever camped once in his life – a comparatively cushy night in our pop-up camper in a nice campground in Sedona’s Oak Creek Canyon – and after a harrowing night involving a trio of racoons and a picnic table full of glass beer bottles had vowed never to camp again.

Stay Left Bill-Far Left!

We set out from Phoenix bright and early, taking the 60 all the way out past the mining town of Miami to Claypool, then heading north towards Roosevelt Lake.  It was relatively smooth sailing, including the next leg of the trip which involved a nearly 20-mile joggle on a washboard dirt road.  It didn’t get hairy until we hit the last 3 or 4 miles of the drive.

‘High clearance vehicle required for last approx. 4 miles,’ is how the guide book put it – which was true, especially for the second creek crossing which involved hitting the creek at about a 45-degree angle and praying you didn’t bottom out coming back up the other side.  What the book failed to mention was something more disturbing than the condition of the narrow, gnarly, boulder-strewn final stretch of road:  the approximate 1000 foot drop on the passenger side!  I felt sick as I crawled along at a snail’s pace, only thankful I wasn’t the passenger.  After about 30 harrowing white-knuckled minutes, we finally spotted the little mining road where we would begin our trek up into Pueblo Canyon.

View into Cold Spring Canyon

It was there, hidden high in the cliffs, that the ancient ‘Anchan Culture’ had lived.  Evolving out of an indigenous Archaic culture as early as AD 800, the Anchan people had started out as farmers living in stone pueblos along the creek banks, but late in the 1200s something changed.

It was then that some of them began to retreat up into these secluded canyons and build nearly inaccessible, and possibly defensive cliff dwellings.  To add to the mystery, these dwellings were only occupied briefly – no more than 100 years – before the Anchan people abandoned the area completely in the early 1300s.

Mining Trail & Steep Mountainside

After parking the trucks, we headed back on foot to pick up the little mining road where it bisected the dirt road and traversed up the side of a broad hill.  It was a pretty steep grade, and it was hot out.  As always, I took mental stock of our situation and my mind rested on my usual first concern; Dan’s water supply.

For all of his meticulous (ie anal) preparation in every other area, I’m now convinced that Dan will have to actually suffer from full-on dehydration or heat stroke before he truly believes he needs more than 1 quart of water per hike, no matter the distance.  True to form, today he carried two 16-oz plastic water bottles – and a Camelbak with an empty pouch.  I reminded him that we had an at least 6 mile, difficult trek ahead but he didn’t seem too worried.  Ugh.  At that point there was nothing I could do but firmly remind him to please ration his water.

Nearing the Top 

We began the hike, which the guide book had cheerfully termed ‘bushwhack out and back’, with Dan and I falling into the rear with Bill, while John and Brian from Jersey forged ahead at a good clip.  The trail quickly narrowed as the mining road faded and finally disappeared beneath our feet, replaced with what looked to be no more than a well-traveled game trail.  We switch-backed up the flank of the hill, practically burrowing through the thick manzanitas in a grueling, steep, nearly 1000-foot climb.

Finally the trail leveled out and opened up and we were able to see the far canyon wall, getting our first tantalizing glimpse of the cliff dwellings, although we weren’t yet a third of the way to our destination. John and Brian quickly disappeared ahead again as Dan, Bill and I took a much-needed breather, enthralled by the view across the canyon and taking advantage of the photo op.

First View of Dwellings

As we hit the trail again, it got narrower still, and began tunneling through thick, low, deciduous-looking trees.  In parts, we weren’t even sure we were still on the trail.  After an exasperating muddy scramble up a 10-foot, nearly 90-degree stretch of trail during which I managed to drop my walking stick, my hat, and my knife in quick succession, we all stopped to catch our breaths and I realized we hadn’t heard nor seen Brian or John for a while.  Now even more unsure as to whether we were on the trail, I yelled for them, to no avail.

Dan recalled seeing what appeared to be another branch of the trail about 10 minutes earlier, and wondered if they had gone that way.  At that moment a hot wave of anxiety washed over me, and I got a sinking feeling in my stomach.  How dumb we were to not stay together!  If they had gone the other way, they could be heading for an entirely different canyon than us, and our only hope would be to head back down to the vehicles, adventure aborted, and hope they eventually turned up.  I  opted to stay with Bill while he rested, and Dan pushed ahead; soon I heard his unmistakeable bird call…’Twee, twee!’  Thank God – he had found them!

Rattlesnake!

We all regrouped, vowing not to separate again, and started back along the trail as it opened up into a rocky, cathedral-like stretch that hugged the canyon wall.  Great streaks of minerals streamed down the rock walls, and natural seeps dripped water all around as we continued on.  After passing what appeared to be a small rockslide that had covered part of the trail, I suddenly heard what sounded like a huge maraca rattling and echoing back and forth across the canyon walls.  Everyone jumped backwards about three feet, which was a bit dangerous as the trail was only about three feet wide with a steep drop-off behind us.  Finally John spotted the perpetrator; a large rattlesnake coiled against a rock, huddled, rattling and ready to strike.

They say your true nature comes out in crisis situations and I have to admit this isn’t the first time I’ve felt a twinge of guilt at my incredible sense of self preservation.  I finally got close enough to take a picture (full zoom of course) after being reassured that the snake was not going to unexpectedly fly four feet through the air at me.

Waterfall

The trail continued along the canyon wall, passing a solitary ancient one-room structure perched right next to an historic uranium mine (guide book warns not to go in, for obvious reasons!) before reaching the back of the canyon and a beautiful, seasonal waterfall.  This time of the year it was sprinkling healthily, although I’m sure if we would have been a month or so earlier it would have been more of a force to be reckoned with.

Apparently, the ledge below the falls, which you must cross, also gets icy in the winter, but rest easy – if you slip the drop won’t send you ‘plummeting 300 feet’ like the guide book says.  I’d estimate it at a good 50-foot plunge, although it is pretty much sheer rock so I suppose the actual height is irrelevant; you wouldn’t be walking away from that fall.  Just sayin’…

Pretty Amazing!

The crown jewel of this trek was the reason we came:  magnificent cliff dwellings lie just beyond the waterfall.  Room after room, they lined the cliff ledge in a seemingly endless progression, better-preserved than any I have seen before.  It truly brought me back in time to see the actual posts and beams, stucco still clinging to the walls, and even faded paintings right on the stucco walls.

Interesting factoid:  famous archaeologist Emil W. Haury visited these very cliff dwellings back in the 1930s to collect tree ring samples for his monumental tree ring dating project.  You can see cuts on some of the beams, but I’m not sure these were from Emil – although it made for an interesting thought.  There was almost too much to take in, the pictures in the slide show below will hopefully do the experience some justice.

After visiting these amazing and extremely inaccessible structures, it’s hard to imagine what would have caused the Anchan people to choose to live somewhere so difficult and seemingly inconvenient to reach.  Some archaeologists think they moved up there to be closer to reliable sources of water but others believe it was a defensive move in response to a threat by other, possibly invading, Native Americans.

Cheers!

After drinking in our fill, we headed back the way we came, eager for the comparable civility and comfort of our camp site.  Most of us were silent on the way back – whether from exhaustion or reflection, I can’t say for sure, but for me it was a little of both.

I was happy we all made it in one piece and got to experience the wonder of the cliff dwellings.  I was thankful that Dan still had one sip of water left by the time we finished, thanks to careful rationing.  I was glad noone got hurt, bitten, or otherwise incapacitated.  I was excited that Brian had gotten to see something so remarkable, and so different from what he was used to in Jersey.

Back at the campsite, while enjoying a celebratory round of Skinnygirl margaritas in plastic camping cups, I eagerly asked him what he thought of the journey and whether the  end made it worth the strenuous hike in.  His response was typical Brian: ‘Eh – it was OK I guess.’

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Quick Jaunt to Cooper Forks
Nankoweap

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