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Saturday, March 9, 2019

Florida (Floor-eee-da) Saddle: A Casual Desert Walk Turned Mission Improbable

"It’s easy to take walking for granted, to dismiss it when judged against an outdoors life packed with exciting gear like skis and kayaks and bikes. But it is walking, after all, that is the easiest form of escape. Just get up, put one foot in front of the other, and you’re gone."  Adventure Journal

How, exactly, does one distinguish a "walk" from a "hike?"  I mean, what is the difference? 

Oh, you say...a hike more serious than a walk. Balderdash! Was Frost on a walk or a hike when he "stopped by woods on a snowy eve?" How about Thoreau, who made a living by mining forest and ponds, penning the virtues of doing something as simple as walking. And what about Peter Jenkins, who, in trying to find himself, found instead a generous nation as he walked America from New York to Oregon? A hike, or a walk? 

Thus, I draw no semantic distinction between walking and hiking. To me, they are both means to worthy ends...an easy way to exercise our bodies while exorcising our demons. 

"An absolutely new prospect is a great happiness I can get any afternoon. Two or three hours’ walking will carry me to as strange a county as I expect ever to see..." Henry David Thoreau

All three Boondockateers, i.e., Chris, Bobbie and your's truly, had done Florida before, but never together. So we were familiar with the trail's panoramic upsides as well as its loose rock and relentless grade downsides.  Chris is the one who suggested it and, as you know, it's a cold day in Hell when Bobbie and I refuse an opportunity to put in some miles with friends...or strangers, for that matter. Especially on a beautiful, warm, cloudless and smogless morning.

At 0830 hours, and running 15 minutes late, we rolled into Chris's boondock camp. He had the place all to himself and appeared quite at peace...slumped in a folding chair, soaking up the morning sun and desert calm. In his view Mount Wrightson loomed dark and mysterious, the north face slowly giving up canyon shadows in favor of light. 

Remnants of last week's record snowfall clung to life around mid-mountain, while upper ridge lines and peaks remained stoic and resolute...a solid bank of white. Without gear, Florida Saddle looked beyond reach. Perhaps this will be short and sweet. 

One must weather lower Florida's inauspicious beginning in order to reap the higher up Pot-o-Gold vistas. The lower section is littered with millions of loose, roundish rocks, the kind that tend to slip slide out from under foot when pushing up, or even worse, down its steep grade.  

Walking along, Chris remarked that he enjoyed this hike for it's views and because it winds through several of Arizona's climate/vegetation zones...from mesquite grasslands to thorny scrub to willow/oak to pinion/juniper to well-spaced trees in a ponderosa pine forest. 

Though 9,500 feet, Mount Wrightson shies from view on Florida Trail. It's north face vegetation barely inches into the alpine zone, marked by aspen and a few sparse clumps of tundra. It's remarkable that a half-hour's drive north lands one in the middle of the Sonoran Desert, a "needle zone," with all things prickly and venomous, including saguaro, ocotillo, and the dreaded cholla (jumping cactus), as well as gila monsters, tarantulas and assorted rattlesnakes. Yes, Arizona is a land of sky islands, a place where one can pick their zone of comfort according to temperature, rainfall, vegetation...and reptile.    

Hiking along, I remembered when our family lived on a cattle ranch about 50 crow-fly miles from this trail...that I attended second grade in Palominos, a tiny crossroads town about halfway between Sierra Vista and Bisbee. It was a two teacher, two-room elementary schoolhouse...1st through 4th in one room, 5th through 8th in the other. I have one solid memory from going to school there. When the overtaxed teacher needed to move on to her 3rd and 4th graders (I think there were three of them) she handed me a sheet of mimeograph paper filled row after row of little purple dashes. I held the paper to my nose, inhaling the ink's potent and familiar aroma. The teacher then instructed me to fill in the blanks with numbers 1 to 100, in order. I think that killed the rest of the day...  

On we plodded up, up, up—above the rolling grassy desert floor. Our view expanded with each foot of elevation gain, to Tucson and beyond to snowcapped Catalina Mountains.

Looking north toward Tucson

Looking south into the Santa Rita Mountains, beyond which lies Old Mexico.
Distant snowcapped Catalinas
The vistas from sky island mountains like Wrightson are incredible and far reaching. On a clear, smogless day you can see 75 or more miles. On this day, thankfully, a northerly breeze kept Tucson's air pollution to a minimum.

We knew it was coming, thought we'd turn around. But snow was for the most part patchy, shallow and a non-factor. It was a relief to be in cool shade after a rather exposed hike up to forest. After a bite to eat and given our feet were still warm and dry, we decided to push on.

Warm enough to pull up shirt sleeves 

Snow began to appear in shady spots, but anywhere the sun landed it was soft and dry and easier than hiking those rolly-rocks below. 

Of course the snow got deeper the higher we climbed. It was getting slushy toward mid-day, but had yet to top our boots.

My Bible-speaking mama said that all good things come to an end. "As sure as it takes stiff winds to make oak trees strong, it takes trials and tribulations to harden God's children." 

I thought about that as we plunged through drifts that topped our boots. It was futile to try and dig it out when the next step just refilled it. Boots, socks and feet were getting cold and soggy. 

By a vote of 2 to 1, it was decided that the guy with the biggest feet should break trail. Oh well, my feet couldn't get any wetter. Besides, my toes were growing numb, oblivious to the cold. Snow continued to funnel its way into our boots. I kept glancing up, trying to get a sense of progress toward Florida Saddle. We distracted our minds from the ordeal by talking about how good it would feel to dry out our feet, maybe take a nap in warm sun once up on Florida's Saddle. 

For some (insane?) reason, we kept going. I guess I was on Autopilot, semi-dazed...post-holing a trail for Bobbie and Chris. I lost count of the number of switchbacks. All I knew was that you could drown a horse with the combined amount of ice water in our boots. 

"We should be getting close to the Saddle, guys!" I said, peering upward through a stand of charred trees. "The ridge line is right there." 

As with war, it's weird how something trivial morphs into something worth fighting for. We went from "Don't want to get our feet wet" to "Damn the torpedoes."  In the absence of sabertooth tigers and woolly mammoths, me thinks our modern civilized world has made life too easy. Thus we are forced to invent game-like challenges and conflict in order to sate our inner caveman. 

Chris, after wading through a drift of deep snow 

The deeper the snow, the more difficult it became to stay on-trail. Chris had enough doubt that he checked his GPS, just in case.

The veneer of crusty surface ice began to wear through my thin-skinned shins, leaving little streaks of blood that stood out in the white snow. Pooped, I leaned against a charred tree waiting for Chris and Bobbie to catch up. The time had come to hold a group con-flab. Chris dug out his GPS and estimated the distance left to Florida's Saddle. Only a third of a mile! But time was slipping away, and hiking through huge burn that looked like a war zone was not providing much incentive to continue. The coveted saddle was so close, yet so far away.

Believe it or not, common sense prevailed. Wet feet, soaked socks and with shoes laden with water...not to mention the numb toes, tired legs and my bleeding shins, we turned around and retraced our postholes down mountain. 

Feeling weak, I resorted to popping caffeinated Shot Blocs like candy.  I soon decided that the problem with Shot Blocs is that there's a point beyond which they seem to quit working and just leave you feeling wired as well as tired.  

Getting deeper
ALERT:  Goretex doesn't work in snow that's over your boot-tops.

I felt a tad deflated, not making it to Florida Saddle. On the other hand it wasn't a true "defeat."  I mean, we had a good long hike, nearly 3,000 feet of elevation gain, good weather and no injuries. That's a good day, right?     

Exhausted, we had but one last obstacle... the creek crossing. Chris didn't see the point in bagging wet boots and went looking for a step-stone route to get across. Meanwhile, Bobbie thought damp boots beat soggy boots and bagged up. 

Chris! Don't risk hopping on tired legs :)

Sometimes discretion is the better part of valor...

Note: If you are not checking in on The Adventure Journal and The Adventure Blog (on my right sidebar) you could be missing out on some really cool adventure videos and stories...from edge-pushing wing-suit adventurists to mountain climbers to those who do their exploring via simply walking, walking, walking. Both sites are worthy, not to mention a good resource for relevant publications like this one: Beneath My Feet: Writers on Walking. The accompanying 4K videos are often incredible.

Peace out,
mark, bobbie, and chris 


  1. Flor-ee-dah....do you suppose that is where I actually am right now? And thank you for the inspiring hike, and for honoring my desire to walk as well! Sounds good to me, but I prefer the non snowy kind of walking. And I will go check out those blogs. Been a long time since I added any new blog reading to my life, and have skipped a lot I used to read, but I'll take your word for it this time...just this once.

  2. The Miracle is not that there is Life in the Universe, the Miracle is that there is a Universe in Your Life.
    Thanks for sharing your experiences with us, it's all beautiful, even the hiking with boots full of ice water.
    Stay thirsty my friends and SAFE.

  3. Nice little saunter through several climate zones, thx again for sharing your adventures :)

  4. That snow doesn’t look as deep in the photos as it felt at the time. Your garbage bag method of stream crossing has come in very handy this wet year. I have a feeling there may be more to come on Flo-ree-dah... Chris

    1. I know...guess I didn't bother with getting the best photos where the snow was deeper cause I was busy trying to stay upright :)
      Always an adventure when hiking/walking with you!
      mark and bobbie

  5. 3000 feet in elevation and no injuries is a very good hike! Snow and shorts, that's so Arizona! Lovely photos!

  6. I was surprised you turned back with "only" a third of a mile to go. You're getting soft ;-)
    Nice to see Chris in your photos!

  7. Oh Good God! Trash bags? Crazy people who are productive are geniuses. Crazy people who are rich are eccentric. Crazy people who are neither productive nor rich are just plain crazy. Geniuses and crazy people are both out in the middle of a deep ocean geniuses swim, crazy people drown. Most of us are sitting safely on the shore. Take a chance and get your feet wet.

  8. Somehow, I don't see what you do as 'walking'. I'll stick to my saunter.

  9. Whoa, I am surprised that so much snow has stuck around! Aside from that slushy snow, it looks heavenly there!

  10. What the heck's going on down there? We NEED an update!

    From "up north"...a few miles from Oracle.

    1. Headed up toward Oracle today! Place called 24 Hour Town...stop by for a beer :)

  11. The difference between going for a walk and hiking? The former doesn't evoke phrases like "plodded up, up, up" or "push on" or "Boots, socks and feet were getting cold and soggy." This is why I'm likely to answer, "Yes," when someone asks if I want to go for a walk but decline when someone asks if I want to go on a hike. And why I'll get mad if the walk ends up involving plodding or pushing on. In my book, when you go on a walk you become unaware of the fact you're walking. ;-)


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