My cousin David called in February of 1975 to invite me to backpack with him over spring break. I was a sophomore at Mesa Community College and had no plans for spring break next month. He wanted to hike along the Verde River, just north of Prescott and Chino Valley and follow it into Clarkdale. I was game and so we plotted our course, examining U.S. Geological Survey maps that show the topography of an area.
I was in good physical condition, registering a time of just under 6 minutes in a timed mile run as part of my weight training class at MCC. That combined with pumping iron four to five times a week had me in good shape. Or so I thought.
To prepare for the hike, I bought a new, sturdy backpack and filled it with 10- to 25-pound weights. I was living in Tempe and motorists thought I was a strange sight, walking all around Tempe with a full backpack. I did these three times a week for about six weeks in preparation for the rigors of the hike. I left most of the details to my cousin as his enthusiasm and knowledge of backpacking exceeded mine. However, there were two “small” details he failed to mention prior to the hike.
It was a crisp, cool but clear morning that day in mid-March when David and I were dropped off at the old Highway 89 north of Chino Valley and just south of Paulden. We exited the vehicle, grabbed our full backpacks, put on our hats and headed for the Verde River that was less than a mile from the old highway. We were loaded with food, sleeping bags, first-aid items, one firearm and tons of enthusiasm, ready for this adventure.
It was my fault I did not ask how long this backpacking excursion would take, nor did I ask how many miles we planned to hike. The answers were: four days and three nights to cover about 65 miles. That averaged about 16 to 17 miles a day. Say what?!
The other detail he failed to tell me was the “trail” we would eventually follow on the second day, was the railroad tracks. Railroads were not built for pedestrian traffic, which I quickly found out the second day. As we walked along the railroad, we could feel the rumble of an approaching train that signaled us to quickly exit the tracks. Railroads also traditionally run through mountains via tunnels that are dark and not designed for pedestrians. Railroad bridges are built to cross over mountain gorges. These bridges are also not designed for pedestrian traffic.
On the bridges, we had to time our steps to land perfectly on every other railroad tie. These support the rails in the tracks. Between the ties was nothing but air, sometimes more than a 100 feet straight down. We developed a pace in which we hiked for 50 minutes and rested for 10 that created an impressive pace. However, crossing the numerous bridges and stumbling through tunnels slowed that pace.
While some of that backpacking trip was frightening, I enjoyed the challenge and the scenery most people never view. We decided not to pack water in order to save weight on our backs. Instead, we filled our canteens directly from the Verde River and used halazone tablets to purify the water. The Verde water was ice cold and absolutely refreshing.
On the afternoon of the fourth day, we staggered through the railroad yard in Clarkdale and were overjoyed to see my uncle waiting for us. He stopped in Cottonwood so we could eat normal food instead of the freeze-dried “delicacies” we’d digested for several days. I lost count of the number of hamburgers we consumed from Cottonwood, through Jerome and over Mingus Mountain into Prescott. Much of that backpacking trip is now part of the Verde Canyon Railroad route based in Clarkdale.
When I completed my junior and senior years at Arizona State University, outdoor recreation was my major and required several outdoor-living skills classes that I thoroughly enjoyed. During our department’s current comprehensive master plan process, the community ranked outdoor recreation programming as its No. 3 future priority. GreenPlay, which is the consulting firm for our master plan, will present a final draft to the Parks Advisory Board and Town Council on Sept. 16.
We anticipate that we will offer outdoor recreation programming in the near future. And those who attend can be assured that all details regarding backpacking outings will be covered.