The Experience Arizona Memory Project: Chiva Falls Spring Break 1987
By Matt Marine (with Julie Graham, Karen Roberts, Karin Causbie and Bill Wittke)
I climbed into my bright yellow 1977 CJ5 and checked the camping equipment filling the small area behind me.
- Sleeping bag: check
- Change of clothes: check
- Camera: check
- New Winchester shotgun: check
- Miscellaneous bread, chips and snacks: check
- And most importantly - three coolers. The first was filled with food and water, the other two were completely packed with cheap beer: check
All secured and ready to go.
I gave my friend Bill Wittke a wave and he threw me a thumbs up in return. He was in his 1976 Toyota FJ40 Land Cruiser. So were three beautiful college girls. We were headed out to Chiva Falls east of Tucson for spring break. A huge grin stretched across my face. What could be better? Women, beer and four-wheeling – three of my all time favorite things all rolled into one trip.
The only bad thing about the trip was that we almost died. Which isn’t one of my favorite things.
More on that later, first a little background. I was 23 and going to college at the time. I had just transferred from Pima Community College to the University of Arizona to become a Civil Engineer. Bill was also at the U of A, but as a Mechanical Engineering student and a few years ahead of me. We had been friends with the three girls, Julie, Karen and Karin for a year or two. I had met Julie while taking a class at Pima.
How I met Julie is an interesting side note. I was painfully shy in high school, only going on a few dates and one semi-long term girl friend. When I came out to Arizona I was determined to change that. As I enrolled in Pima, I told myself that I was going to sit next to the prettiest girl in each class and make it a point to talk to them. That’s exactly what I did.
Julie happened to be the prettiest girl in one of my classes ... and I actually talked with her. We dated for a few months, but she decided I wasn’t the one for her (which I don’t blame her) and tossed me aside like a piece of soiled garbage. Just kidding, she was very nice about it and we remained friends afterwards.
Through Julie we met Karen and Karin and became friends with them also. At the point of this trip, Julie and I had already broken up, however, my romantic relationship with the other two wouldn’t start until after this trip (but that’s for another story).
I remember it was a warm week for spring break. Neither vehicle had AC and it was hot driving out to Redington Road. The three girls rode with Bill, not exactly sure why except that they wanted to stay together. We took what I call nowadays the “easy way” or “middle way” in to Chiva Falls via FR4417. I didn’t know about the way through Three Feathers and The Crack.
At that time, the first hill coming off Redington Road was one of the toughest portions of the trail. You had to climb up a significant step and there wasn’t much room to negotiate around it. The problem was your differential would get caught on it if you didn’t have the ground clearance to clear it. Bill went first, but we only had 31-inch tires and Bill promptly got his rear differential caught on the rock.
Bill and I always had a playful rivalry of Land Cruiser (which I called Land Loser) vs. Jeep and this made my day. I proceeded to give him shit, having secured bragging rights until the next time I got stuck. We got out his Highlift, jacked up his rear bumper and stacked enough rocks under his tire to allow him the clearance to negotiate the step. Of course, I made it up no problem. This may have to do with us having already stacked up rocks, but I proudly stated it was due to my superior driving ability and vehicle.
We made the trek out to the intersection of FR4405 and FR4405A (where the trail splits with one going down to Chiva and the other heading above the falls) without anymore issues. We knew there weren’t great places to camp down by the base of the falls so we headed up FR4405A to camp at the top of the falls.
We had never taken this section before and this hill was quite nasty. Steep, with some good sized rock steps and lots of soccer ball sized loose rocks. Bill went first again. Within a hundred yards he was in trouble. He’d taken a line too close to the edge of the road and lost traction in the loose rubble. As he spun, his vehicle began to slide further and further off the edge. By the time he stopped and asked for help, his right two tires were off the trail and he was angled sharply to the side. I think the girls got quite freaked out and they bailed out of the Land Cruiser as soon as it was stopped.
I climbed up the hill and helped Bill survey the situation. We talked about getting the Highlift jack out again, but we didn’t think it would work because of the angle. We tried to gently work the vehicle back onto the road, but every time he spun his tires it would slide further off the edge. As neither of us had winches at the time, our only solution was for me to drive the Jeep around him and try to pull him up the hill.
"I got back into my Jeep and started up the hill, bouncing and spinning like crazy."
- Matt Marine
Bill had taken the line closer to the edge of the hill on his right due to some large steps on the left. I didn’t have a choice and climbed the steps. After skirting my way around Bill, I carefully backed up my Jeep so I was angled upslope to his left. At this time I carried an old logging chain wrapped around my front bumper from my Michigan days. I loved that old chain. The only problem was that is was freakin’ heavy as shit and only about 10 feet long. That meant I had to be very close to him to make this pull. And if he went over the edge, I was only going to be 10 feet behind him.
The other problem was that I didn’t have any recovery hooks on my back bumper. I had to hook the chain to my shackles (which had been extended by 1.5” to make room for the 35 inch tires I had bought the Jeep with). These were my weak spot in my Jeep. I had broken a few shackle bolts in the past, mostly from pulling Bill out of tight spots. But we didn’t have a choice and we chained the two vehicles together.
Bill and I returned to our vehicles to make the pull while the girls stood way off to the side. I believe they were thinking it was going to be a long walk home to tell the authorities how both of us had died.
"I made a silent prayer as I put it into first (which on my three speed wasn’t much of a low gear) and gave him a gentle pull."
- Matt Marine
He made sure there was a great deal of tension before he applied power to his wheels. At first nothing happened, he continued to slide and spin as my Jeep didn’t gain any traction. Unfortunately, I had to clear one of the large rock steps as I pulled him out. I gave the CJ a bit more gas and my tires gained purchase, then I leapt up the rock. Bill’s Land Cruiser followed suit.
As soon as Bill came off the edge, he gained a little momentum and the chain developed some slack. Bill began to slow down, but I continued to move forward. The chain tightened and bang … there went another shackle bolt.
But Bill was out of danger and it wasn’t too far to the top of the falls. It was after that trip that I went to the hardware store and bought all Grade 8 bolts for my shackles and I never had a problem with them again no matter how may times I pulled Bill out.
We found a semi-flat spot for the tent near the top of the falls and set up Bill’s old canvas family tent. Compared to today’s tents, this thing was a heavy beast and a bitch to set up. What I remember of the first night is that we all sat around a nice campfire, drinking beer, looking up at the stars and talking. I don’t think the girls drank too much as they were playing it safe. We went to bed, sleeping in Bill’s tent in linear fashion: girl-boy-girl-boy-girl. Not really a spring break party-fest, but still extremely enjoyable.
I woke up the next morning with a little bit of dry cottonmouth and a slight hangover. It could have been the amount of beer I drank, but my guess it was the brand of beer I drank. I believe we had brought Old Milwaukee. I know, I know. Yuck. But being in college at the time we didn’t have a lot of money. We would look for whatever was on sale at Walgreens and buy a case for about $3.50. And when you’re young it didn’t matter all that much if it tasted like piss-water.
"Lesson number one: if you want to impress women, don't buy cheap beer."
- Bill Wittke
We spent the day exploring the falls. If you’ve never been up to the top before, you can get right up close to the edge if you’re brave enough. There are also a couple of nice pools (tubs) you can soak in. We took a bunch of pictures of us at the top of the falls. I look back at them and they make me cringe. It looks like we were a couple of stupid rednecks. But it was all show. I had just bought my new Winchester 12 gauge shotgun and was prancing around with it like a little girl with her new Barbie.
Since it was so warm, we also spent some time swimming in the pool below the falls. As you can see from the picture, the pool used to be a lot deeper than it is today. At some locations, it was probably close to six feet deep!
"I remember jumping from the cliff into the pool below. Drinking, swimming, singing... good fun!"
- Karen Roberts
During one of the trips on the trail to the falls, one of the girls (not sure who) almost stepped on a small rattlesnake. It was hiding under a rock right along the trail. It wouldn’t budge from under the rock and it saddens me now, but we decided to use the shotgun on it.
Bill and I thought we were badass and took a couple of silly poser shots with the dead snake like we were Bear Grylls. Until the now headless snake kept trying to strike our wrists with its bloody stump. Very spooky. Not wanting the snake to go to waste, Julie said she learned how to skin it from her brothers. She proceeded to do just that, unintentionally making Bill and I feel less like Bear Grylls and more like Pee Wee Herman. After it dried (a few weeks later), I put the skin around my hat. It stayed there for a few years until it got put in storage. I still may have it somewhere in the garage.
That night we (mostly Bill and I) got toasted on semi-warm nasty beer (the ice was mostly melted by this time because the ratio of beer to ice mostly favored beer). I don’t remember much about that night except being fairly obnoxious and the girls getting pissed off. But we paid for it in the morning. Bill and I woke up with massive hangovers.
"I took the snake meat to a house I was house sitting at right after that and put it in the freezer all coiled up and totally forgot to take it with me when I left and when the people came back, they were pretty freaked out as to what the hell was in their freezer! It was the first time (and I thought it would then be the last time) I was house-sitting for the parents of one of Julie's friends."
- Karen Roberts
With the ice, water and food running low, we decided we would leave a day early and this would be our last one. It was probably a combination of the girls not drinking the beer and it being hotter than expected.
"Lesson number two: Bring an extra cooler of water, while still having room for beer. This was the first (and last) time we ran out of water on a trip."
- Bill Wittke
The girls went down to freshen up in the water while Bill and I stayed back to cook breakfast. Our hangover made us think we were starving. And what’s better for curing a hangover than a dozen eggs and a pound of bacon? We cooked up the whole thing, with Bill and me eating almost all of it ourselves.
But I was wrong. A dozen eggs and a pound of bacon really isn’t all that great for a hangover.
The only thing I remember about the return trip is feeling sick to my stomach and that my head felt like it was going to explode. For Karen, I think the ride back was a little much and Bill had to stop so she could get rid of her breakfast out the door. I think it was too much time with Bill in the Land Cruiser that made her sick. I doubt anyone could have gone longer without throwing up.
"I will never drink Old Milwaukee again!"
- Matt Marine
Well, that's all that I remember. Or at least, that's all I am willing to share. Looking back at all those pictures, I find it hard to believe the girls showed so much restraint. Bill and I sure were a fine catch!
Pictures From the Trip
Matt, Karen and Julie at Chiva Falls
Getting Bill's differential off the large rock at the beginning of the trail
Yep, he was stuck.
Bill at the top of Chiva Falls
Bill at the top of the falls again. Nice hat :-)
Bill with the HUGE rattlesnake. Not sure what's scarier, the snake or the bare chest?
Julie slicing the snake open and getting the skin off
Julie and Karin behind the falls
The girls sunning themselves and hiding behind the trees
Karin at our camp site
Karen in the pools under the falls. See how much deeper is was back then? Is that an Old Milwaukee in her hand? If so, why is she smiling?
Me near the top of the falls
Me (with my cool redneck hat) near the top of the falls. Love those shorts!
Me at the top of the falls, trying not to look scared shitless with my new shotgun. Again, nice hat, socks and shorts.
Me behind the falls
Karin and I with the snake. I'm the one in the hot shorts, holding a big gun about to swallow the snake just in case you needed a hint
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