Southern Arizona on the AZT: Desert Initiation

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In early November (2018) I took a bus to Patagonia, AZ. - an 18-hour trip including the layover in Phoenix - to get on the Arizona Trail. Patagonia was as close to the southern border trailhead as I could get to via bus, and the southbound trailhead was about a 4-mile walk from town. Thus began my second month as my perpetually-traveling-writer alter ego, Poetic Wanderer.

After a brief stint on the Continental Divide Trail in New Mexico (cut short because of lack of water) I got back to a friend’s house in Albuquerque and bummed around for a while, brainstorming my next steps. I gave my friend a sketch of my itinerary and he said, “You sure you don’t just wanna stay here and drink beer?” That would satisfy me in the moment but do nothing to solve the more existential dilemma that loomed - namely, what really is the nature of this world and what is my true place in it, if any?

There are a lot of places to pursue such questions and I’m not sure why I eventually chose the wilderness as the arena to battle my way through to answer. I can’t recall the steps that led to that choice but then choices often evolve and aren’t just hatched full-cloth. As I’ve said, the decision not only had been made but the road behind had been obliterated and there was only forward, which somehow is the only comfortable way that I find to pursue my life in general. Solace is not to be found behind - not that the past is all pain, but if there is a more satisfying answer it lies ahead; it’s not anywhere within the realm of the known.

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And so here I was in the unknown: Arizona, a state I’d never visited and immediately fell in love with. I’d grown up amidst tall evergreens and water - rains aplenty and heavy clouds and that brooding meditation that the East Coast encourages; and so the desert had this mystic allure for me; and the desert in Arizona was even more interesting than New Mexico because there were mountains and the prospect of the great Saguaro cactus, which I'd never seen with my eyes and my imagination had first been introduced to via Looney Tunes cartoons of that crazy gunslinger, Yosemite Sam, and the Tasmanian Devil.

I started as far south as I could get on a bus, this being the town of Patagonia. I was still timid and began with a schedule of a few days south and then back to the hotel; a few days north and back to the hotel. It was gorgeous. First free-flowing water I’d seen, initially discovered by accident when I lost the trail. My niece had drawn me a map with New Mexico, Arizona and Florida blocked in (that’s as much of my plan as I’d felt I could confidently tell anyone about) There were red cliffs and sands of all colors and not as frightening as you might imagine a landscape would be when it supports so little life; but then, some locals told me that they’d had an unusually rainy October so I got lucky with that.

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You can almost feel yourself being born, moment by moment, when you plunge into a new part of the Earth like this and you have no vision of the end of the road; you’re creating yourself as you go along. Some of my favorite spiritual teachers (most of them disembodied) say that the same applies to our environment; it’s an extension of ourselves, no separation. What we encounter out there is, at the same time, the landscape of ourselves. I don’t know how many times, and over how many years, I’ve repeated such mantras to myself “my life is mine, and I form it,” that sort of thing, trying to convince myself of what I really do know, that we’re the creators of our reality, but as one of my characters said, “somehow it never sticks!”

Here I was trying to prove it to myself once and for all. Would the desert hammer it into my heart and soul? No, those places in me already knew about it; it was my mind that needed convincing.

Coming from the more challenging CDT in New Mexico, the Arizona Trail seemed more generally well-marked. Confusion usually only occurs at the low points, the ravines or arroyos (commonly referred to as “the wash”, which is literally what such areas are, the results of sandy run-off) where you learn to keep an eye out for stone cairns in lieu of signs.

I met a few other hikers on my third day out, all of them about to complete their southbound thru-hikes at the border with Mexico. Encounters like these can remind you that you’re still embarked upon a human endeavor even though there’s countless hours of just you and the wilderness (I’ve thus far hiked solo…)

Ironically, most of the real drama on this stretch of the trail occurred as I left the trailhead to head back into town. I chose the wrong road - “Harshaw Creek” rather than “Harshaw Road” -, which turned out to be a loop that added six miles to my trek. Or would have. Once I realized the road was unfamiliar and found some signs that confirmed I was off track I faced myself towards Patagonia and stuck my thumb in the air. First time I’d hitch-hiked in years, but I got a ride on my second attempt with a great and gracious guy who was heading to the post office in town, scarcely a block away from the Stage Stop Inn where I was staying. Happy ending.

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Awaken to the New Mexico Wilderness

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Leaving Lordsburg, I walked about four miles on the Highway (70) and then slipped (literally) under a fence to begin searching for signs indicating the CDT. The terrain was rough initially, everything low, prickly and barbed. A species of large black grasshopper that I’d never seen before proliferated everywhere. The occasional tarantula crossing my path.

Water was troublesome from the beginning. The best sources have been the windmill-fed farm tanks. The water certainly doesn’t look tantalizing, but the tanks are often full. One source was so low, though, that I was forced to cut one of my bottle to make a scoop. This was after I’d foolishly used up the store of my bottles for washing.

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Alongside this challenge, I had to acknowledge that I was consistently falling short of my goal of covering fifteen miles a day. This proved particularly difficult as the route took me into the mountains, although this area was also the most clearly marked section of the trail I’d yet encountered. You come out finally in a park area with a sign warning of “Bear Country”. I crossed the highway twice in this area. Did some rough camping on rocky high ground, too tired by then to search for a better spot and the light was ebbing.

That night I decided to turn around. I had by that point encountered three water spots that were bone dry, and things were beginning to feel dire. The CDT in general seems much more geared for spring hikers going northbound. There was no trail magic here for me, and even many of the water spots indicated on the map were not viable. The few days I spent out there were well worth it, though.

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Spurred by such concerns, I made as many miles (retracing my steps) over the next two days as I had in the first three. I passed former landmarks - an ancient, disintegrating house of black wood; the stone foundation of an unknown building; trails of quartz running down hillsides.

On my last night camping out before reaching Lordsburg again I heard thunderstorms to both the north and east, moving closer as the night progressed. My trepidation mounted as I thought about how my tent was by far the most prominent structure in that whole stretch of flat prairie. I meditated to calm myself as the tent walls were pelted by rain and hail.

I was so eager to get back into town, because of these adverse conditions, that I awoke at 6 a.m. - after 4 hour’s sleep - and was packed and ready to go in an hour. By the time I reached the nearest grocery store I wanted to gulp down everything in their cooler. If you want to enjoy the most refreshing and best tasting glass of lemonade in your life, hike in the desert for a week first.