Que Bonita!

March 7-9, 2014

Our obsession with Eastern Arizona continues, as we discover ever more magnificent and lightly travelled canyons.

For the first backpack of the year, we returned with David and Rogil for a closer look at an area we passed through on our big mid-winter ramble. We needed a meeting place near Safford, so we decided to rent a couple of casitas at Essence of Tranquility "Spa" and hot springs. The quotes should serve as fair warning to anyone who books a room here expecting Ojo Caliente (or Faywood, for that matter). Tucson's closest developed hot springs has been pretty well savaged on TripAdvisor, and — understandably gun-shy — the owner has gone to great pains on her website to explain that she offers a good soak and no frills accommodations. And if you can get past the plastic flowers, paper murals, fake rock walls, plaster-of-Paris statues of Buddha, and other well-worn 1970s-vintage kitsch, E of T is a pleasant place to soak, sit back and listen to the wind rustling in the bamboo fronds that's very reasonably priced at $5.00 a head for the tubs and $50-$60 a night for a "casita" and unlimited access.

Next morning after the obligatory stop at The Cottage French bakery(!), we made our way via a long series of very bad 4WD high clearance roads, hoping one of them would intersect a side canyon where we could scramble down to the main drainage. We stashed the vehicles at a wide spot in the road and trudged downhill, where we were surprised to find a well-marked trail winding through a classic high desert forest of tall yellow grass, juniper and piñon. Tortured spires of red and yellow tuff reared up as we dropped into the canyon, and the next 3-1/2 miles were an exposition of Arizona's stunningly varied and complex geology. Around every bend was a different layer of rock ranging from rough reddish-brown basalt to chalk white to glassy gray to chunks of pure black lava.

For about the last half- mile, the trail scrambles high on the north wall of the canyon to avoid a 15-foot pour-off, providing breath-taking views of a distant mountain range as well as our first glimpse of a ribbon of brilliant lime green outlining the path of the main drainage.

The dry and boney canyon gave way to a canopy of towering sycamores and cottonwoods, and we quickly discovered that beavers have been very active in this canyon, constructing dams about every 50 feet and splitting the stream into dozens of shallow rivulets. We found a flat spot in a dense bosque not far from a meander, and made camp. We had just enough daylight to hack our way upstream to a historic stone cabin. In 2003 the BLM and Forest Service collaborated on an elaborate restoration, completely rebuilding the roof and upper walls and erecting a marker detailing the history of the area.

We were aware that our trail was once a pack trail used to haul wood to the mines in Morenci, but we did not know that much of the hauling was done by Chinese laborers, many of whom settled in this valley when they were summarily dismissed from the mine.

Copper ores in the Clifton area were known to prospectors by the early 19th century, but the area's remote location made them difficult to exploit. Shipping was the principal barrier to volume copper production, and a primary impetus for construction of the Southern Pacific Railroad beginning in 1877 with the aid of Chinese laborers.

When the Chinese began drifting from railroad construction to mining, it ignited fears of a "Mongolian invasion". The owners of Longfellow Copper Mines declared that they would only employ Chinese for "work which neither white men nor Mexicans" would accept. Instead, they would be put to work in the hills burning and transporting charcoal for the furnaces over such rough country that "even Mexicans cannot be got to carry anything over it".

Under the management of James Colquhoun, the Arizona Copper Company doubled the work force at Clifton to a total of four hundred in 1883, among whom were about one hundred Chinese. Before the end of the year, however, Colquhoun discharged the Chinese, replacing them with Anglo-American and Mexican miners. On their way out of the hills, several of the unfortunate Orientals were waylaid and killed for the money they had scraped together. But, as in many other boom settlements of this period, a large percentage of Chinese driven out of mining and railroad work remained in the community to open businesses.

— Excerpted from "The History of Mexican Labor in Arizona During the Territorial Period"(University of Arizona, 1961).

It was a delicious night by the stream, with temperatures just right for sleeping, and we awoke refreshed and ready to explore more side canyons. We set off downstream and almost immediately spotted ancient walls and doorways scratched into the friable cliffs high overhead.

We turned up a broad wash where we observed crenellated "stone silos" very similar to the cliffs lining Deer Creek in the Galiuros. Could this be the same formation?

The canyon walls quickly contracted, and we were treated to a series of twisting tunnels, each one decorated with even more colorful rocks than those we'd seen the previous day. If the rocks were different flavors of ice cream, I'd say we had everything from butter pecan crunch to rocky road with some sections of coconut and elderberry sorbet. Some slots were capped with impressive choke stones.

Although it never felt like we were climbing, we suddenly emerged from the canyon onto a broad plain at the base of our nearest mountain range. And, even more surprising, we soon arrived at an intersection with a 4WD road that definitely warrants further exploration.

But dark clouds were rolling in, so we turned back and reached camp just in time to zip ourselves in for the first of a series of rainstorms. We were quite content with the opportunity to write a bit, doze and play with Dennis' new all-band backpacking radio.

We did one more short hike during a break in the weather, but gusty winds and brooding skies made it an early evening, even by backpacking standards. We fell asleep serenaded by a lovesick Western Screech Owl, and heard a few hoots from a Great Horned Owl during the night.

Sunday morning we reluctantly broke camp and headed back the way we came. A young raccoon peered at us from a nearby cottonwood as we packed our bags, probably hoping for a taste of some of the goodies he smelled suspended in our bear bag.

All backpacking trips should end as well as this one, with a soak in the tubs at Essence of Tranquility, followed by tacos at Rodney's in Willcox and a brownie shake at the Mother Lode. Life is good ...