I have long admired pictures and trip reports from the canyoneering community. The landscapes are otherworldly and often contain two of my favorite things: swimming holes and waterfalls. In December, I took a Wilderness First Responder course and met Clint, who offered to take me on my first canyon. But first, I had to gather some canyon-specific gear- a wetsuit and special shoes with super-sticky rubber. The bright yellow-and-black 5.10 Canyoneers arrived without a problem, but the wetsuit was another matter entirely. I mean, really? I have to choose a skintight wetsuit to wear in front of people? When the one I ordered arrived, my husband said it reminded him of the Borg suit.
So after I gathered my gear, I contacted Clint and we planned to meet to do an all-day canyon in the Fish Creek area. I had some Arizona Trail work to do in Superior, so I drove up and camped on a dirt road off Hwy 88. I had an enjoyable evening camping, though it was quite windy. I was nervous and excited about the next day. It was an evening of reflection on the past because the next day was the 15-year anniversary of my accident. I was a 23-year old Anthropology student a couple of days into my last semester at the U of A and I was walking across the street one morning to get change to do laundry. As I was coming back across the street, a young woman driving a pickup truck turned out of the parking lot and hit me in the back. I’m told that I flew 4 feet up in the air before landing on the pavement, thankfully with no broken bones. However, instead of recovering from the accident, it led to me developing Fibromyalgia, a chronic pain condition, that I struggled with for many years before learning how to manage it.
When I was really sick, I used to look at the anniversary of my accident as an excuse to be even more depressed than I normally was, lamenting the passing of my healthy years. I had no idea at the time that my life was not in fact over, it was just on a different path than I had planned. Over the years as I got healthier and stronger, the anniversary of my accident would sometimes pass by without me noticing. Now, I looked at the 15th anniversary as a perfect day to try something adventurous and new- something that the old, depressed, and in-constant-pain me would never have imagined.
In the morning, I went to our meeting place just past the Fish Creek bridge. I was there by 8:45. I set myself up to wait, as Clint had said that his friends were sometimes a little late. I sat and read and waited for them to arrive. After an hour, I began to wonder. After an hour and a half, I realized that something had gone wrong somewhere and that I probably wasn’t going to be doing a canyon today. I hoped that everyone was okay, and as I had no cell reception in the canyon, I decided to drive up and see if anyone had left a message.
I had been looking forward to this for such a long time and I was pretty sad as I drove back toward Tortilla Flat. But not as sad as I was when I turned the corner and saw some parked cars next to a bridge. Somehow, in the morning I had driven right by the first bridge and had been waiting the whole time AT THE WRONG BRIDGE! I pulled over next to a black SUV that I thought belonged to my group, got out of my car and proceeded to throw a massive fit at the thought that I had been so close by the whole time- the other bridge wasn’t even a half-mile away! Thankfully there wasn’t anyone around at the time, so I was able to go full Italian with my rage. I scrawled a note to Clint with some indelicate language about how I’d been at the wrong bridge and left it on the black SUV. And then came the tears of disappointment as I as I made my way back to Tortilla Flat. I called my husband Brian, who helped calm me down and told me to go for a hike.
I decided to suck it up and go check out the Boulder Canyon Trail near Canyon Lake. Pretty views of the Superstitions should pick me up a bit. There were many groups on the trail and about half of them saw my umbrella and thought they were being funny and original by telling me that there was no rain in the forecast. I was not in the mood. I barely noticed the ascent as I rage-hiked up the hill. Then I realized- I’m lucky to be alive, lucky to have my legs, lucky that I managed to control my fibromyalgia enough to be stomping up this hill at high speeds. As disappointed as I was, the canyon would be there. I took a break and watched a beautiful Red-Tailed Hawk make lazy circles above my head. Plus, the year’s first wildflowers were beginning to dot the hillsides- how could I be so mad when there’s the year’s first poppies at my feet?
There were fantastic views of the Weaver’s Needle as the trail hit a saddle. Another reminder of how far I had come. When I was really sick, a half-mile walk would give me excruciating pain for days. I never would have imagined that I could have climbed the Needle, but last year, I did it. I saw the Four Peaks and was thankful that I had the energy and stamina to traverse the range on the Arizona Trail. All these amazing things- but WHY DID I PARK AT THE WRONG BRIDGE! Even in my reflection, I still castigated myself for making such a silly mistake. I reached the highpoint of the trail and had lunch with fantastic views.
I couldn’t calm down enough to relax, so I headed back right after eating. I saw another solo hiker and made some small talk. When I said I was from Tucson, he said that he and his wife were traveling and were wondering about Tucson. I’m always happy to help people figure out things to do in my town, so we ended up hiking together. His name was Ron and he and his wife were organic farmers from New York who had just sold their farm and were traveling full-time, looking for a new place to live. I told him how the story of how this was my consolation hike after missing my group this morning and was able to laugh about it. I enjoyed his company and it was a great pick-me up. Ron had been dropped off at First Water and needed a ride back, and I was happy to give him one. Along the trail, we realized that we were both half-Indian. His mom is German, Irish, and Native American and his dad is Punjabi (a region of India). My mom is Italian and my dad is from New Delhi. Pretty rare that I meet another half-Indian, especially since I moved to Arizona. I drove him to First Water, where his wife Kate was waiting. As she got out of the car, she said, “She looks just like your sister!” I really enjoyed meeting Ron and Kate and we made plans to get together when they make their way down to Tucson.
So, I’d had a good hike, made a new friend, and my day was looking up. I drove back into town and finally got a hold of Clint. Went through the whole scenario again for him and had a good laugh about it. One of the best parts- I found out that the black SUV that I had left the note on did not, in fact belong to his friend. So some random person got a note filled with profanity from me. Hilarious. Clint felt bad that I had missed out, and offered to take me to a smaller canyon the next day before he had to go to work. Absolutely. I went over to his house and he gave me some instruction on techniques and I practiced setting up a rappel off the leg of his coffee table.
The next morning, we got to the parking area for Damocles Canyon so early that we had to wait for the light to hit the canyon. We had a short approach hike and then entered the streambed. There was some rock hopping and ledge walking and then we got to the first rappel. It was 15 feet onto a ledge and then a swim across a pool. We went our separate ways to change into our wetsuits- it was really cold and I hadn’t even gotten in the water yet! There was an anchor already in place and I set up the rappel and Clint downclimbed so that he could belay me from below. I felt pretty comfortable with the rappel. The water was so cold and I saw a small underwater ledge on the side of the pool so that I could walk while clinging to the wall so I didn’t have to swim.
The next rappel had no anchor and Clint went over what he’d taught me last night about building my own. The rappel was 20′ into a pool- no getting around the swim this time! I set up the anchor and then practiced locking off so that I could downclimb into place to start the rappel. The icy-cold swim wasn’t too bad and I warmed right up after getting out. Swimming in a canyon in January- I love Arizona!
The remainder of the canyon we were able to avoid further swimming by doing rock climbing moves along the walls of the canyon. It was so much fun and over way too soon. I was kind of glad the way that it had worked out, getting the instruction at Clint’s the night before and starting out with a smaller canyon. It was a good way to get my feet wet, so to speak, and I can’t wait to go again!
I have kept in touch with Ron (who I’m calling my hybrid Indian brother) and he and Kate ended up leaving the night that I met them and told them about Tucson and have been camping here ever since. My husband Brian and I took them for a tour up Mount Lemmon the other day and had a blast. And I’d never met them if I hadn’t parked at the wrong bridge.
In wildlife rehabilitation news, the first bunnies began appearing as early as the poppies this year. I have also scheduled the second annual Birds, Blues, and Bellydance benefit for Saturday, April 14th at Sky Bar, so mark your calendars! Music by the Railbirdz, hawks and owls from Wildlife Rehabilitation Northwest Tucson, and bellydance performances- what’s not to like?
Also, a big thanks to the Sierra Club and Southern Arizona Hiking Club. I recently did presentations on the Arizona Trail and both these groups donated generously to my wildlife rehab fundraiser.