The Colorado River marks more than just the boundary between California and Nevada or Arizona. It is a graphic indication of where the Mojave ends and the great Sonoran Desert of Northern Arizona begins. Through the region, the river forms the bottomland in the watersheds between the gentler slopes of the Mojave’s Piute Mountains in the west and Arizona’s Black Mountains to the east. It is where nature has put an end to the Mojave, and we enter the northwestern corner of the Sonoran. This is a new kind of desert, one that will be more forgiving in some ways, more demanding in others.
After a few days in Oatman I recover enough from the black widow spider bite to continue, and we ride down the trail along the eastern slope of the Black Mountains, following an abandoned leg of old Route 66 that was bypassed many years before and has been completely forgotten now. The road winds down into the Sacramento Valley and crosses what will someday become Interstate 40, near Kingman, the last real civilization we will see for a while as we make our way into Hualapai country. The Hualapai Indian Reservation borders on large tracts of government land administered by the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, so there are few private ranches in the area. Most ranches here consist of smaller holdings attached to large tracts of government-leased land.
We climb steadily into high desert country, to altitudes over a mile high. Because the terrain is still very desert-like, only the appearance of large pine trees gives away its elevation. The country is rugged with buttes and mesas that blend with taller peaks that have names like Cottonwood, Tin, Cross, Peacock, Snowy, Aubrey, Aquarius, and Yampai. It is slow going, and I lose the trail many times, having to backtrack because of washed out gullies and dead end canyons.
There were very few fences back in the Mojave Desert, but there are more here, though they are still few and far between. When a fence interrupts our trail, we travel along it until I can find a wire gate. If none is to be found, I find a corner post and untie the barbed wire, take down the fence, pull Gizmo through, and repair the fence behind us. If no corner post can be found, I cut the fence with my fence tool, then repair it after we cross. I can find a gate most of the time, even if it is far out of our way.
Camped at a windmill here, with a bit of grass growing around the cattle tank. A calf wandered up, looking for its mother. Since Gizmo was the right color it decided he would do, and it tried to nurse. Gizmo didn’t know what to do. Just turned his head around to see what was going on back there, and snorted a lot. I laughed for the first time in days. It felt good.
Windmills and cattle tanks are easier to come by in this country because a lot of the land had been settled by cattlemen in the past. They have left their mark upon the land, fencing, drilling wells, and creating berms and dams for collecting water. The harsh sandy desert of the Mojave has given way to sandstone cliffs and red dirt with larger plants and more available water. Piñon and juniper trees are plentiful here, and they constitute a primary difference between the Mojave and the Sonoran Deserts. There is good grass through here for Gizmo, and camps are easy to find. The going is rough for him, however, because the trails are steeper and harder on his hooves. He still has the set of shoes he started with. The hard borium patches that were welded to their soles have lengthened their lifespan, but now they are beginning to wear faster from the stones and hard ground he is forced to cover every day.
I am concerned for my horse’s back. Gizmo has lost weight, and his backbone is beginning to show just slightly. I’m not overly worried, but I know that the saddle will begin to fit incorrectly over time as his physiology changes. I know I will need to keep a close eye on it so that he doesn’t get cinch galls or saddle sores. I walk and lead my horse much of the time through this high desert, especially when we’re traveling downhill.
The sweetgrass that grows in bunches throughout this country offers sustenance to me, in the form of tea I make from it, and nourishment for Gizmo. It often grows alongside the locoweed in a dance of give and take. I am vigilant about making sure none of the weed lies near where Gizmo grazes at night. I often cut tall grass with my knife and bring it to him when there is none growing around the campsite.
Gizmo seems to be holding his own through this country. We have traveled over five hundred miles and he has been transformed from a green, inexperienced four-year-old colt into a well-seasoned veteran of the trail. He rarely spooks at anything now and has learned to keep his eyes and ears sharp for sounds around us, something I now rely on to signal possible danger.
We emerge from the rugged country of the high desert into a broad grassland, and the mountains of the Kaibab National Forest appear in the distance. I locate Bill Williams Mountain and Mount Sitgreaves on my map. They lie far to the east, each one rising nearly ten thousand feet above sea level. We stay a couple of days in Seligman, where I sleep in a bed for the first time in several weeks. I give Gizmo an alcohol rubdown each of the two nights we stay, and it seems to brace and revitalize him. Gizmo is rock solid now, and so am I. We have each lost twenty percent of our body weight, and neither of us has an ounce of excess fat. It has given way to lean, hard muscle, though not the kind a body builder would exhibit. Each of us seems to mirror the other; Gizmo and I both gaunt and tough, though not yet what you would call skinny.
From Seligman we begin our long climb into the forests of the Kaibab, passing places with names like Partridge Creek, Sereno, 15 Mile Tank, Corva, and Welch. We follow an abandoned rail line that takes us deep into the mountains, longer, but an easier route because railways do not climb steep hills, but instead go around them with gentle grades. The trail is over seven thousand feet up. I don’t push my horse hard knowing that this is his first time at this altitude. I want both of us to acclimatize to it gradually.
It is beautiful country that will someday become a hiking trail for outdoor enthusiasts who will be able to drive to its trailheads for a leisurely day’s hike. For now though, we ride through extremely isolated country that has not seen travelers for decades. The route takes us nearly to Williams and continues in patchy sections all the way to Flagstaff. I am grateful for the secluded passage through the rough mountains. From Flagstaff, we leave the San Francisco Mountains and enter the Painted Desert of the Navajo Reservation, an area that covers almost eight thousand square miles.