Mark D Stephens: Adventurer, writer, photographer, ambassador of the sonoran desert
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Rescue at Coalson Ranch
How far from civilization can you break down?

(another version of this trip can be found in Vol. 4 Issue 3 of Arizona Outdoorsman)

Clifton ArizonaThe old tale goes like this:

"All I need is a barrel of dynamite and two boys to help haul rock. You'll have your jail in three days." Sounds simple enough, right? Well, today you can drive through Clifton, Arizona and see a small jail cell blasted into the side of the cliff, built with no more of a contract than those two senteces above. In 1878 Margartio Verala made history in Clifton, and built this jail out of a rock wall. The historical piece goes like this, though: Verala got paid, went to the dance hall in Clifton that very night, got drunk on tequila, and fired his guns in public. His little way of celebrating.

Then he spent the night in jail for disorderly conduct...in the very jail he built.

Oh, and he was the first person confined in this unique cell.

That's a pretty good record; now you could say that I join the ranks with ol' Margartio as an fool with an interesting record. Not far from Clifton is a wilderness area composed of juniper, prickly pear, and the Blue River. Being on the way to nowhere, really, this area gets just a little attention from adventurers of various kinds. It takes at least a half of a day to drive out there from Phoenix.

Jeep with no top on the trail to Coalson RanchNaturally, I decided to go out there without the top on my Jeep.

Brooke and I packed food enough for several days, the stuff that gets us excited to boot: fresh bell peppers, onions, cilantro, and spanish rice to mix with some chicken breast meat. We cook this up over a camp fire and served on tortillas and wash it all down with too many camp-style margaritas. Brooke even thought to purchase two kinds of beer: Negra Modelo and Killian's Irish Red.

Burrito on the manifoldFor lunch on the first day, I told her I wanted to do manifold food. Yeah, that's right. Cook on the manifold of the Jeep. You know those little burritos, taquitos and chimichangas you can buy in the frozen food section? Wrap those up in foil and tuck them between the nooks and crannies on the manifold inside the engine bay just as you start the trail in the morning. By noon you have a warm meal that is ready to go. Scott Brady of Expeditions West taught me this trick down in Patagonia, Arizona several years ago. I was sitting on a rock watching everybody in our group eat while sitting in camp chairs. Foolishly, and without a single thought, I left my lunch and chair at camp. Scott looked at me and laughed the only way a friend can and tossed me a warm steak and cheese burrito he'd cooked on his manifold. "Here, eat this. You look so sad sitting on the rock, man." Yes, laughing all the way back to his comfy chair.Eating on the Jeep trail

What brought this trip-wating-to-be-a-disaster together was a small grave marker at the end of a small two-track trail on the topo map. The trail calculated only about 12 miles in length - which I'd verfied with the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest office. These mountains are on the outskirts of the Blue Wilderness Area and I've never trekked out there before. Having the scenic 191 Highway nearby told me that this was worth exploring. The grave marker read, "Coalson Ranch" and I wondered if there were remnants of a ranch still there. Fences, maybe some old buildings. Damn, it's out there, I thought. The road crosses the Blue River. How cool.

Doesn't that sound like a fun adventure? Solitude, river crossings, remote roads, gorgeous mountains...

One good reason not to go drive a trail, though, is if you don't have a second or third vehicle to go with you. However, this hardly seems like a good reason when you're excited about a short vacation. As a matter of fact, when you're looking at a weekend away from everybody - a weekend alone with your wife - this trumps every rule you've ever learned about off-highway driving. Rules were meant to be broken.

Blue River wilderness jeep trailMy little recipe for disaster was going perfect except for a little rain. We'd nearly driven the entire length of the trail to Coalson Ranch when the sky closed in and brought a thundering storm. A mere 1/4 mile from a site called Do Nothing Tank, we set up camp in the early afternoon and decided to visit the ranch in the morning. When the rain stopped, though, Brooke and I hiked down to Do Nothing Tank.

The tank is, or maybe was, a watering station for cattle. A large cylindrical tank with a massive corrugated ramp appears to collect water from the sky. These old juniper branches are the only stilts holding up the ramp. Just around the corner lay a the body of a dead cow: horns, stench, and all. After exploring this tank, the only thing left to do was cook dinner and get drunk. The site we picked rested at the pinnacle of a ridge and when the clouds broke, we had a 180 degree view of the valley that hosts the 191 Highway.

Despite the rain, everything was going perfectly.

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"Woah. Look at this place" I remarked. "Check out these buildings. It's totally in tact. Where do you think I should park?"

"How about where that guy is pointing to." Brooke saw a man coming out of the corral, waving at us.Coalson Ranch Arizona

"My God, someone actually lives here. I hope he's not pissed. I guess I'll go talk to him."

The man wore blue jeans, a blue plaid shirt and an old baseball-style hat. He carried a coffee pot that looked like it was 50 years old, and was steaming reminding me that it was a cold morning. He was grinning.

"Good morning," I said.

"Good morning."

"Is it okay to be here?" was the best thing I could think to ask. He was old, yet tough looking. He had that classic leathery cowboy skin and a rough face.

"You speaka Spanish?" he asked.

"Si, hablo bien. O yo lo creo." We laughed together. He offered us some breakfast.

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Blue River Wilderness Jeep TrailAround the corner from Do Nothing Tank, the Jeep didn't even hesitate. She just stopped, like I'd pulled the key out of the ignition. Now, think about that: The perfect weekend was coming to an end. We we're headed back to camp only to pack and hit the road. Maybe get some local Mexican Food in Safford. Brainstorm up a book to write. Something like, "Magic Beans: Adventures in Arizona Mexican Food." it may not get me a Pulitzer, but I'd have fun working it up in my head while we laughed and smiled about our weekend fun with the trail, the rain, and the cowboy. And in an instant I knew...

...the fun was over.

"Oops, I stalled." I wondered exactly what prayer I could offer that would make that true. But the last time my fuel pump died, I was alone too. And I prayed. And it didn't work they way I wanted it to.

Cow SkullGod made me walk to go find help in the night, instead. I guessed he wasn't on speaking terms with me yet. The miracle you want just ain't the miracle you get.

But I didn't stall, and I knew it. There were only two things that would help us: God or our two feet. Feet tend to be more commandable, so we walked.

At the camp, we packed food and water and agreed to just get to Stacy Ranch about 10 miles away. Then it rained. Then hailed. Then the mud built up on our shoes and we were wet and wondering if there would be anyone at Stacy Ranch to help. Would they be kind? Would they tow us out? Give us a ride to town; even then, what would we do there? How much was this going to cost? When would we get home?

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related quote
God bless us fools
screwing up all your rules
hanging onto our bar stools
Getting married in a honky tonk bar

- Roger Clyne, Honky Tonk Union

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Mark D. Stephens: Adventurer, Writer, Photgrapher and Ambassador of the Sonoran Desert