We had been out hiking for most of the day, and it seemed like the snow kept falling harder. Starting in the morning, we had set out on a hike up the east side of Mt. Elden, a mountain settled slightly northeast of Flagstaff, Arizona. The trail was called Fatman’s Loop and led up the mountain in a circuitous fashion. Rocks, shrubs, and trees dotted the upward slope as we hiked.
At one point the trail thinned out, and we began to notice a large number of deer droppings in our path. After walking a few minutes more, we realized that we had lost ourselves on a deer trail. The trail eventually looped back, however, and we found ourselves again on the main trail. Wasted time, but we weren’t lost.
Google’s weather forecast had been calling for a winter storm to pass through Flagstaff starting at 11am that Monday–predicting 8-10 inches of snow over the next day. On Sunday afternoon, concerned that our tent-camping expedition might not be able to handle such a large amount of snow, we walked by the KOA office to get some wisdom.
“Yeah, the weather people keep saying there’s gonna be less and less snow,” said the man at the desk. “It’s probably not gonna be too bad.”
I said I heard there were going to eight to ten inches. “Yeah, from looking at the radar, I wouldn’t expect it to be that bad,” the man said. “You should be fine.”
Because of this assurance, we had decided to stay one more day in Flagstaff, for one more hike.
Reaching a rocky outcropping, I pulled out my phone and snapped a photo. It was beautiful, misty, quiet. I was insistent that we hike as far as we could, so when we reached the Elden Lookout trailhead, we took that turn and continued up. With snow falling steadily but lightly, we had to watch our steps. “Three points of contact!” Sammy said matter-of-factly.
Pulling my phone out again, I discovered it was dead. Freezing temperatures played games with my phone battery–it had been fully charged only an hour or two before. I had forgotten to keep my phone in my pocket and had instead put it in my backpack. When pressed against my leg in my pocket, the phone tended to last longer, bolstered by the warmth of my body. Surrounded by cold, it quickly died.
“Sammy, your phone still has battery?” I asked.
“Yeah, for sure,” said Sammy. We decided that if his phone died too, we would turn around–our hike wasn’t especially dangerous, but we didn’t want to take any chances.
We stopped and ate lunch–PB&J’s and chips–and then kept climbing. The mountain reminded my nerd-mind of the Fellowship attempting to cross the Misty Mountains in The Fellowship of the Ring. It was snowy, and the rocks were snowy, and there was ice in places. The only thing missing was “a fell voice on the wind.”
We decided to turn around.
Getting down, I discovered, was trickier than I expected. Sammy slipped a couple times on the rocks as we descended. “Careful,” I would say each time, before slipping myself and sitting down hard with a thud. My self-righteousness vanished, and we continued down, carefully, one step at a time.
Reaching our car at the base of the trail, we climbed in and headed for town. It was snowing more heavily now from a cloudy, bright sky. We stopped at the Flagstaff post office and mailed off some postcards to family, then headed for a nearby coffee shop.
It was a small, cozy establishment–the White Dove–and just what we needed. I pulled out the book I was reading (a book by Kevin DeYoung on the Heidelberg Catechism) and read for a bit while sipping coffee and letting my phone charge. We were both thankful for the warmth–something we hadn’t had much of recently. It was a welcome reprieve from being almost constantly in weather hovering around freezing.
Eventually, we decided it was time to head back to camp. The car had been covered in a fine layer of snow, so we had to dust off the windshield before driving back.
At the camp, we walked to the main office first, and I shot a video journal entry with my phone on the way–we had been keeping a video log of our trip, and with all the snow falling and a winter storm warning, I figured it was a good opportunity for an update.
When we returned to our tent, it had collapsed. The weight of the snow had twisted it down into a pile. Shaking the snow off, we set it upright once again.
In an orderly fashion, we got out the campstove and made dinner–instant mac & cheese combined with a couple cans of chili–voila, chil-mac! When it was ready, we wolfed it down. Then, after washing the pot, cleaning up, and stowing our cooking gear back in the car, we got in our tent.
“What the–” said Sammy, feeling around the inside edge of the tent where he kept his towel and some clothes. “Everythings soaked.” His pillow was soaked too.
Throughout the day, the snow had melted and crept in around the edges of the tarp we laid down. The moment was sobering for us–we were prepared for a cold night, but we hadn’t counted on the moisture. At least our sleeping bags were waterproof.
“Here, Sammy,” I said. “Let’s move our sleeping bags and other stuff towards the center of the tent. That way if more snow leaks in during the night nothing else will get wet.” After more discussion, that’s what we did. There wasn’t anything to be done about Sammy’s soaked pillow, but we were at least a little more comfortable.
Sammy looked up the weather forecast for Utah–our next stop. It was supposed to be clear and warm(er) there. We talked excitedly about how we were going to get up in the morning, load up, and drive out of Flagstaff. From hearing us talk, you’d think Utah was the Promised Land–the thought of getting away from all the bad weather made Utah sound positively idyllic. Utah had better be nicer, or we’ll just go home, I thought to myself.
As we lay there, snow falling, a dull light from a nearby lightpost illuminating the skin of the tent, I could see snow piling up above me. It got heavier, and as the minutes ticked by the two supports of the tent began to twist. Sammy and I took turns reaching up and giving the tent a shake to dislodge the snow. It was a game for me, watching the snow pile up and guessing the point at which the tent would start to collapse.
The snow we knocked down collected at the sides of the tent and caused the sides of the tent next to our sleeping bags to lean in on us–a cold, wet kiss if I swung my head the wrong way. I pushed through the tent on my side, scooting the snow back and creating a little box.
The game of keeping the snow away continued most of the night. I woke once to see the tent frame slowly twist, then twist some more. I popped out of my bag just in time to keep it from falling on us. The commotion woke Sammy, and I explained in guttural, half-awake tones what had happened as I rolled over and attempted to sleep some more.
The morning came quickly, and we were up with the dawn. After a brief discussion, we decided to go find the laundromat and dry out some of our gear. I checked my phone and saw a message from my mom–a picture of the king cake she had made and the words “Happy Mardi Gras.” It was Mardi Gras–I’d completely forgotten!
Unzipping the tent door, we were greeted by a lovely site–the world a giant open-faced ice cream sandwich. Over 10 inches of snow lay on the ground–maybe more.
Hopping over to the laundromat, I matched my steps to Sammy’s footprints to keep from collecting snow on my boots–like one of those Tusken raiders from Star Wars. We used all of Sammy’s quarters to dry a few loads. Then, after a breakfast of oatmeal, we set about getting past the next hurdle: driving out. A KOA employee with a front-end loader equipped with a snowplow had been out that morning clearing the main paths of the campground, but there was still a large pileup of snow directly behind my car, between it and the main path. We went to the main office and asked if we could borrow a snowshovel, so the office sent a man to help us. Walking back to our car, we passed the front-end loader making its rounds. The driver opened the cab and stuck his head out.
“Y’all are from Louisiana,” he said loudly. “You should be home celebrating Mardi Gras right now!”
We laughed, and I told him about the picture of the king cake my mom sent earlier that morning.
“You’re crazy!” he said.
Back at the car, the man with the snowshovel took one look at the pileup and decided to call for backup, so soon we had the front-end loader swipe our area, clearing most of the snow.
“Just start backing up,” the man with the snowshovel said. “And if you get going, don’t stop.”
After a first attempt that ended in snowy wheelspin, I pulled forward, and backed up once again, keeping pressure on the pedal. The car burst free onto the path, and we were clear.
Getting on the interstate and heading west, we were delighted to see the weather clear up and become beautiful once again.