Shake’nBake drives me up to the top of Mount Lemmon after my zero. We sit in the parking lot for a while, delaying our goodbye. Then, he has to go catch a plane. I kiss him one last time, then turn and walk away. It feels like I’ve stepped back in time, to before we were officially dating, when I’d only see him on trail for a few weeks. It doesn’t matter that we live together now, and I’ll be going home to him in just under a month. An ache of loneliness builds around my heart, until I want to turn around and get back into the car.
I don’t turn back, no matter how much I want to. Instead, I start the long descent from Mount Lemmon. The trail follows the road through Summerhaven, a tiny tourist town, then loops onto rotten dirt through a burned forest. The wind picks up as I drop, and the charcoal skeletons of trees creak overhead. Egg sized rocks litter the trail, making my feet ache. I follow mountain lion scat for most of the evening, until I find a camp spot amongst tall, dry grass. I set out my sleeping bag as a shooting star whooshes overhead.
The next day is cooler, ragged clouds blocking some of the sun’s heat. I hike fast, trying to cover miles before the heat returns in a few days. There’s no shade to stop in anyway: I eat my lunch in seconds, and keep hiking. The wind keeps me cool though. It rises and howls, grabbing at my sunhat and flinging my pack straps in my face. It builds and builds, until staying upright is a challenge. I run along a ridge between gusts: fast steps, then as I hear the wind coming, I stop and brace myself, using my trekking pole for extra traction. There’s nowhere to camp without being blown off of the ridge, so I run and run, until I find a spot just above a wash.
It’s cold in the morning, cooler air settling in the wash overnight. I hike fast to beehive well, where jackrabbits dart around a metal water tank. I climb away from the water, then follow powerlines for the rest of the day, on gentle downwards sloping trail. Everywhere is flat, shadeless, and invariable: the same drab shrubs, the same grey rocks. I camp a short walk away from a wildlife drinker (a rainwater tank green with algae). My legs ache and my feet hurt, but my biggest issue is my mind. Today was boring. Yesterday was almost as bad. Tomorrow doesn’t look much better. Do I really want to be out here in such uninteresting scenery? It doesn’t matter how your body feels if your mind isn’t in it.
I still feel kind of blah in the morning. The scenery is still flat, still boring, and the trail still follows a powerline. A trail angel has cached water at a gate. I chug a bottle, then fill it again, and feel a little happier. The trail drops through a canyon, finally a change from flat, and my mood rises again. After the canyon, the trail switchbacks up to a tall ridge. On one switchback, waddling away from me, I see it. I can’t believe it at first: I’ve wanted to spot one for so long. Is it a mirage? No. It’s a tiny lizard, black with orange bands and spots. A Gila Monster.
It’s smaller than I expected, maybe just a baby. I get as close as I can without scaring it, and watch it waddle for a minute, with lazy, bowlegged steps. It disappears into the rocks, and I continue up the trail, ecstatic.
It’s amazing how one simple encounter can change my day so completely. The trail transforms into a magical place. I skip along the ridgetop, climbing effortlessly, admiring the saguaro. Finally, elevation gain offers me a view, mountaintops rolling into the distance. It’s slightly spoiled by a mine directly in front of me, but I do my best to ignore it. I have cell service up here, full glorious bars, and I message Shake’nBake about my Gila Monster.
The trail falls down towards the Gila river, and the heat rises. My head swims, and I force myself to stop in the shade as much as I can. Finally, I reach the river, shaded by tall, green trees. The trail crosses on a bridge: no CDT style crossings, where the trail meanders from side to side a hundred times a day. Then, maddeningly, the trail climbs out of the shade, high on the hillside. I check my phone: I’m supposed to be following the river for ten miles. Why am I so far away from it?
I’m on trail, it’s just that the trail is stupid. I watch as it follows hillside contours, just out of reach of long tendrils of shade. Sure, the river won’t destroy the trail the way it does on the CDT, but there’s limited spots to grab water, and I’m still in the desert, despite being so close to this green paradise.
I detour to the water down an ATV track, then climb away again to set up camp. I pitch my tarp for the first time despite there not being a cloud in the sky. “Rabid foxes!” Warn Guthook comments. “My friend was bitten here! My tent was charged by a fox!” I have no idea if a tarp will deter a fox, but it must be safer than cowboy camping.
I pass a peaceful night, unmolested by foxes. My fears feel a little silly in the bright morning light. I meander by the river for half the morning. A rattlesnake politely lets me know it’s there: it shakes its tail at me, then slithers off to a respectful distance. I fill my bottles one last time at the Gila, before I climb away. How much water to take? It’s only nine miles to a rainwater cache, but Arizona makes me thirsty in a way the desert never has before. In California or New Mexico, I’d take two litres. Here, I grab a third.
I climb away from the river in the heat of noon. There’s no shade, and the climb is hard as always. I sip at my water. Just a mile away from the river, and I’m already fearful I haven’t brought enough. The scenery changes as I climb, mountains rising around me, rocky outcroppings towering over the landscape. Finally, I’m leaving the flat, boring desert behind.
I reach the rainwater cache with an inch of water left in my bottle. A spigot drips at the bottom of a massive rusty tank, with a wide rim turned up to the sky. I turn the spigot and water flows. I sit and drink an entire litre before I stop feeling thirsty. Ok. I guess it’s a litre for every three miles, not five, if I’m climbing in the heat. I fill my bottles and continue to cowboy camp high on a ridge, surrounded by peaks. A frog investigates my camp, jumping repeatedly onto my crinkly groundsheet as I try to chase him away. Finally, he’s quiet and I can sleep a little.
It’s ten miles to a trailhead in the morning, all downhill. I hike fast, half running, to make it to the parking lot before ten. I send a quick text, and then MJ the trail angel is pulling into the dirt lot, ready to whisk me away to her home in Superior.