Hiking in Aravaipa
In Greek mythology, the three-headed dog Cerberus guards the gates of Hell. In Arizona, cats do the job.
It was a perfect October day as my husband Ken and I headed for the east end of Aravaipa Canyon,[air-ah-VIPE-a] the wilderness area canyon stretching northeast from Mammoth to Klondyke in Arizona for an easy hike down a canyon bed. The turquoise sky crackled against the tops of red and purple mountains. The slanted rays of morning sun creased deep pleats in rock walls. Soft breezes carried air warm enough to ease the shock of stepping in cold Aravaipa Creek.
Some years before, riding in a helicopter over the Aravaipas wilderness, I squinted down at the green gash carved by Aravaipa Creek. Here and there the sun reflected back from poolof water or hawks spiraled up from the green clouds of foliage along the creek.
One dark, diabolical cleft was so narrow that no greenery or diamond flash of water was visible from its depths. The deep black fissure writhed across the land, untouched by jeep trails. In a line of canyons reaching northward to the mountains, with names like Desolation and Hell’s Half Acre, this was the meanest looking. This maze-like canyon would swallow up a wanderer and tuck them away in a dead end. There might as well have been a sign: “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.”
“What’s that?” I shouted over the thrum of the rotor blades.
Through the padded earphones I heard the name, “Hell Hole.”
I had been to Paradise, Arizona. Now I was on my way to Hell.
Splashing along the creek bed which frequently doubles as a hiking path, we drank in the beauty of Aravaipa’s rugged rock walls. Frequently we consulted the topo map, called, invitingly, Booger Canyon, to be sure we had not missed the mouth of Hell Hole Canyon. Two and a half miles into our easy hike, we curved to the right into a side canyon as wide as the main corridor and as gently beautiful. Where were the narrows?
A large, bare, bleached bone lodged between rocks in the stream. Probably mountain sheep—a victim of mountain lions or an unfortunate fall from the towering cliff above. We scanned the top edge of the cliffs, hoping to spot the departed sheep’s relatives. Lizards scurried and canyon wrens did their comic dives. The breeze interrupted the stillness with soft shhhhhs of waving grasses.
Fifteen minutes in, we could see the broad canyon suddenly narrow and make a sharp right turn into a slot. My goal—the tortured narrows of Hell Hole Canyon—was close at hand.
At the curve, a feathery clump of willows stood across the creek from our path. On the right, the canyon wall displayed a mosaic of sienna and black—a crazy pattern that demanded an artsy close up. I pulled the camera from my purple fanny pack and turned toward the wall of rock, moving the camera close, to frame nature’s abstract art.
Ken, behind me, said quietly, “Look across the creek.”
I swung around, the camera still raised, and looked into the trees. Less than fifty yards away across the creek, the soft brown fur of two young mountain lions reflected the sun between shadows cast by leaves. Heavy legs dangled from the branches with those puppy-like not-yet-grown-into-them big feet. They looked like the stuffed animals that lounge on a little girl’s pillow. A larger cat, no doubt their mother, lounged nearby. Like the youngsters, she was as relaxed as a kitten after lunch.
“Take the picture,” I silently told myself, my camera frozen at my chin. But I envisioned a click that would sound like a cannon as it reverberated off the rock walls. I really did not want to annoy these kitties.
Mind racing, I considered the options. To continue into the narrow Hell Hole, we would have to pass the cats right where the walls closed in. They might have felt threatened. We surely would.
With a couple of words of whispered consultation, Ken and I backed slowly down the path, the way we had come, the cats lazily watching us. After several minutes that seemed like years, we turned and completed our retreat with only our pounding hearts to break the silence of the canyon. Checking over our shoulders we confirmed that the cats stayed in their tree, and we strolled back to the parking lot, ending our easy hike.
And that is why I never got to Hell.