I’m late. The sun is already a hot ball low on the horizon as we drive to the trailhead, and we shield our eyes from the burning rays with our fingers. It’s April 10th, later than you should really start the Arizona Trail. Some hikers are already reaching the northern terminus, postholing through snow, dreaming of the heat I’ll be hiding from in just a few short hours.
Our shuttle driver deposits me, Shake’nBake, and two other hikers at the parking lot at Montezuma pass. From here, it’s a quick hike to the border, downhill the entire way, past cacti and trees stunted from the heat. I pick up my pack with shaking hands. This is my sixth time starting a thru-hike, but the same nerves still swirl in my belly. What if I can’t handle the heat? What if I’m too late? What if my achilles, pulled six months ago running, gives out? What if this is all a big mistake?
Shake’nBake gestures in front of him. I take my first steps towards the border, and he falls in behind. The trail is new, but the movement is as familiar as always. Each step soothes my nerves. By the time we reach the rusty fence marking the border, I am calm. Here is where I belong. It doesn’t matter if it’s desert or mountains or overgrown woodlands, or if the trail is smooth and clear, or just a faint imprint. I’m back.
The border monument is a strange thing: fully in Mexico, blocked by a barbed wire fence. To the west, rusty iron bars rise 30 feet in the air for a few hundred meters, before subsiding back to flimsy barbed wire. The iron fence is impressive: imposing, intimidating. But utterly pointless when the barbed wire on either side is easy to cross. I drop my pack, bend almost in two, and step between the strands of wire. Now in Mexico, I reach out and hug the monument. Always a rule follower, Shake’nBake stands on the US side, reaching out with a trekking pole to tap the monument.
There’s no point lingering. It’s a long way to Utah, and we get to start with a four thousand foot climb, up to ten thousand feet. The sun is already high and hot, beating down the back of my neck. I find my floppy hat, and cram it low over my ears. It doesn’t help with the heat, but maybe I won’t be a lobster by the end of the day.
The trail rises and the heat grows, until sweat runs down my temples and prickles my back. Shake’nBake finds a mine entrance, and we hide in the sweet shade to eat our lunch. Then, the climb continues. Around us, the plants change, growing taller as the air cools and thins. Prickly pear changes to stunted oak trees, which switch to tall ponderosa pines. We take a break in the dappled shade of a pine, where the air is cool and tastes of snow. The two hikers from the shuttle are there, half napping on their foam mats.
“Oh hey, look, a hiker!” one of them calls. A man weaves between the pines, far off trail. “I don’t think that’s a hiker,” the other says. His pack is small: a child’s school bag. He’s dirty and weather beaten, but wearing town clothes in dark colors. He hears us talking, looks up, and changes direction to give us a wide berth. This is my third time hiking at the US-Mexico border, but my first time seeing someone crossing that border. I wonder if I should offer him food or water, but by the time I remember my broken Spanish he’s gone, vanishing among the pines.
Shake’nBake and I normally split up on climbs, so we can hike at our own speeds. Now, he refuses, hiking so close behind me that I worry I’ll trip. I try to rationalize his concern as sweet, but after five minutes, I’ve had enough. “Go ahead,” I say. “I’m going to hike six hundred miles without you. Besides, he wanted nothing to do with us.” Shake’nBake passes reluctantly, looking over his shoulder to check on me. Before long, he rounds a switchback, and I’m left alone: just me, and the pines and the wind.
We crest the shoulder of Miller Peak as the wind builds. Up here, the heat of the day is forgotten. Snow snarls the roots of the massive ponderosas, dirty with spring melt. We drop down again, to a spring-fed hose, dripping into a bathtub. It’s our first water source of the day. We’ll dry camp tonight, so we fill our bottles.
The sun dips towards the horizon, and we follow its trajectory, running down the mountain. The wind howls, chasing us. There’s flat spots to camp, but the wind scours them, whipping the oak and juniper. Just a little further, I think. Just a little further until we’re out of the wind. The sky pinks and purples, silhouetting distant peaks. We hit a gully, where steep sides block the wind, and I can hear myself think again. But there’s no flat spots, and nowhere to camp.
The moon rises, a sliver from full. We’re in those last moments before you need a headlamp, where the world is shades of grey fading to black. “Here,” says Shake’nBake. One switchback is more recessed than the others. There’s just enough space for two sleeping bags to curl around each other, blocked from the wind, and hopefully far enough off trail. He drops his pack. I feel like a beginner again- underestimating the trail, running out of daylight. How am I going to make it all the way to Utah?