From Dust to . . . Clay

July 8, 1998

Men are suckers. I mean that. We are led easily by a pretty face. It's in our chromosomes.

Recently, I went with my girlfriend and my two roommates to a clay mountain I know of (residue of an ocean bottom from millions of years ago) called Red Knolls. The gorgeous natural wonder changes with every rain. Eventually, it will erode away into the southern Arizona desert, but until that day, it stands as a landmark site at which weekend drinkers can go party. But no, there are other things you can do there. It is a quite a little hike to the top, with sheer cliffs and pitfalls at every turn, there are caves galore to explore, and some (foolhardy) individuals even dare to rappel off the top. You won't catch me risking my life like that (although I've done other foolish things at Red Knolls).

This particular trip with my girlfriend was one with a mission. Michelle is an artist and loves to make things with clay. She wanted to try some natural clay from this famed mountain. Roommates Mo and Joe came with us to help in this endeavor. None of us knew what we were getting into.

It was a beautiful day, nice and cool (odd for Arizona in early June), just a few clouds. Our drive out to Red Knolls was pleasant enough. Joe and Michelle, who had never seen the mountain before, were duly impressed by the sight. Our climb to the top was one I had made countless times before, even at night without a flashlight, up the face of the cliffs. If you know where to look, there is a nice pathway that is only slightly dangerous. Although this sounds dangerous, if one knows what he is doing, the trek is quite safe. With us came a couple shovels and three (not four) backpacks that would hold the dry clay we gathered. We refused to take with us a rusty pick that was falling apart.

The four of us made it to the top safely and in a timely manner. At the top, we found the spot that Mo claims the ancient Native Americans used to go to gather clay for their pottery and such, and after surveying the site for a few moments, we began our dig. Three of us did. Michelle dutifully documented the event with a camcorder, so all of posterity could know of our potentially illicit and definitely dangerous activity. We began filling the backpacks, unaware that every shovel full brought us closer to danger.

Eventually, we felt we had enough and loaded the packs on our backs. Or rather, three of us did; Mo, Joe and me. I'm not trying to say Michelle did nothing, because she was there with moral support and leadership, an inspiration to us all. She even helped us decide what was real clay and what was dirt (hey, I would have brought home clumps of sand and been blissfully unaware of my mistake). We unanimously decided that we didn’t want to go down the way we came up. The face of the cliff that had been so friendly on the way up suddenly terrified the guys going down again, especially with a minimum of thirty-five extra, unwieldy pounds on our backs. Mine weighed seventy pounds, the heaviest of the three packs (if that doesn't sound like much, try it on your back while scaling down a mountain with drops and pits everywhere). I just get a hernia thinking about putting that thing on my back. The rear part of the mountain had a gentler slope and smaller cliffs. We thought that would be best.

Michelle decided to go down and get the car and drive it around back, so we wouldn't have to walk half a mile around the mountain. We parted ways and began our dangerous journey. Michelle made it down the front quickly and called up to us that that way would be easier. Sure, get to the bottom in just a few seconds, but the landing is a bit of a pain.

We trudged slowly around the back and worked our way down. At first, the going was easy. Then we reached the first drop, a mere fifteen feet. Without packs on our backs, it would be easy to use the natural stairs (only six feet) to climb down, but had to account for the extra weight. We eventually just tossed the extra weight down to the next ledge and climbed down after it.

At one point in our descent, we were surrounded by deep natural pits that lead to caves under and into the mountain. It is a spectacular sight, but we weren't looking. Joe foolishly ran and leaped from one cliff to another and almost lost his balance (that extra weight again). After that, we were REALLY careful going down. My back ached and my shoulders were losing circulation from the straps of the backpack, but I persevered. Eventually, we made it to the bottom, where we were greeted by a "What took you so long?" Aside from our murderous thoughts, we were just grateful to reach to bottom alive and undamaged. We dropped our packs into the dust and sank to our knees in exhaustion and kissed the ground in a long, lingering kiss . . . uh, ok. Let's just say we were happy to be down again and leave it at that.

I was dramatizing a bit here. But what I'm trying to say is, we men are suckers, easily culled into suicidal tasks by pretty faces, just to prove how manly we are. We'll even risk hernias.

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