Saturday, July 03, 2004

Desert Hiking in Summer

When I first arrived in Arizona, I read a number of hiking guides. One of them said that the hiking season for the Sonoran desert runs from late October to early April. It offered the opinion that to enter the Superstition Wilderness in summer is to enter a snake-infested inferno. And like most hiking guides, it advised: NEVER HIKE ALONE!

So what do I do? Why, I hike in the summer in the Superstition Mountains alone. It’s perfect: you can hike all day and not encounter one varmint of the two-legged kind. Like Thoreau, I have no walks to throw away on company. Of course, if you break your leg in some lonesome canyon, it may be the end of the trail. But at least you will have the consolation of dying with your boots on.

Today’s hike commenced at 4:45 AM while it was still dark, but the slow setting of a magnificent full moon in the Western sky illuminated my path. My plan was to complete the 9 ½ mile Bluff Spring Loop, a delightful ramble that I have done scores of times in both directions and at every time of the year. It’s a moderate dayhike offering 1260 feet of elevation gain. I struck out in an easterly direction along the Dutchman’s trail, named in honor of the German Jacob Waltz of Lost Dutchman Gold Mine fame The hiking is mostly easy until one comes to the Coffee Flat junction. In the morning it is especially delightful due to the coolness and the micro-climates one experiences as one crosses swales and dips down into stream beds. In a dry climate, the temperature differential between early morning and mid-afternoon is dramatic, in the range of 20-40 degrees F. This of course changes when the monsoon season arrives with its attendant humidity. Some of the swales seemed positively chilly. The ascent to Miner’s Summit in the shadow of Miner’s Needle begins roughly at the Coffee Flat junction. I topped out at Miner’s Summit at exactly 7:00 AM. From Miner’s Summit one can branch eastward out to Whiskey Spring, where Prohibition era scofflaws had a little distillery, or proceed as I did down to the Bluff Spring area .

The gentle descent from Miner’s Summit brings one into the Superstition backcountry. This is the best part of the hike. The sun is now up and my beat-to-hell wide-brimmed Aussie type hat is on. I wear a white long-sleeved shirt with ventilation slots. It starts out open to the waist but is progressively buttoned as the sun rises. The bandanna around my neck doesn’t afford much sun protection, but is an essential element of hiker chic, and useful for any number of purposes. (If I tie the red bandanna around my long hickory walking staff I have a signalling device. It is also good for pot-gripping, nose-wiping, blood-stanching, and water-filtering, the latter preferably before any wiping and stanching.)

Now I get into the Zen of walking – or try to. I let the mental blogging subside and listen to the silence: there is no one out here, no airplanes, no machines of any kind. I just hike, leaving the composition of a blog post about hiking for later. The silence is positive and palpable. But there are plenty of critters most of which I do not see. The tapping of my staff serves notice that a two-legged varmint is on the prowl. A cottontail scurries ahead of me on the trail. They’re not dumb – they prefer the trail to going crosscountry.

I stop often, leaning on my stick, to take in the beauty of rock and sky and cactus that I never tire of. It doesn’t matter how many times I’ve done this loop. It’s always different in some respect or other. That cave over there -- never saw that before. How green the manzantita and juniper this year! There are magic moments. The long vistas in the lambent light serve as catalyst for romantic reverie. A perfectly-formed Saguaro stands sentinel on a distant ridge: it beckons me into an Elsewhere and an Elsewhen. It is what it is, but it is also a symbol pointing to something Beyond. It draws out my vision, but also my nostalgia, a sort of metaphysical nostalgia for something lost in an irretrievable past.

The strange experiences a hiking body/mind can have under a blazing sun in the broad spaces and lambent light of the desert Southwest. “Cactus Ed” Abbey had these experiences:

I can see for fifty miles or more into this ‘strange mystic unknown’ Southwest. There’s a mesa out there on the horizon, a beautiful high steep-sided flat-topped mesa. Blue, purple, dark, far-away, never-to-be-known-looking. (Confessions of a Barbarian, p. 107)


Yonder mesa is not just a flat-topped hunk of rock. It bears the look of the Unknowable. Its beauty refers us beyond it to its Being, which cannot be captured in any of its empirical attributes.

Happy and free, I stride along, .38 Special revolver riding on my hip, a six-shooter but cowboy-five-loaded (no round in the chamber nearest the hammer lest in a backwards fall I blow off one of my huevos), pack a back, complete with rattlesnake venom-extractor and enough gear to get me through a night, about a half-gallon of water left sloshing around in their containers, talking and singing, dreaming and thinking, and stopping now and again, stopping the feet and the brain, stopping to take in the Silence which is not just aural but mental as well.

Bluff Spring a profusion of green delight, and then on up a dry stream bed through a canyon flanked by multicolored rock sculptures that leap out at you in the lambent sunshine against the bluest of blue skies. I stop at the Terrapin junction for a brunch of egg sandwiches, a stop that is also my third water stop. And then out of the backcountry across some high ridges affording spectacular views to the precipitous ankle-busting, knee-screwing descent know to the locals as Heart Attack Hill. I prefer going up this sucker – I’m an uphill specialist, and just too cautious to make time on the downclimb – but to avoid people I do the loop in the counterclockwise direction. Being fat and lazy, most people will not ascend Heart Attack Hill. And being late-risers, they will always be way behind me.

Now I’m back at the trailhead, and spy only a couple other vehicles. But no one is in sight, and I saw not one two-legged varmint the entire time. That pleases me. It is 10:15 AM, and it is starting to get a tad warm out here. Time to fire up the old Jeep and roll down the windows for that Mexican air conditioning.