The Arizona Trail: "Consulting the Oracle" and Ascent to Summerhaven

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The trip to Oracle from Patagonia involved a bus ride, a stay in Tucson, two cab rides and a hitch from the suburb of Orovalley. Finally I found myself at the trailhead, about 10 a.m. on a Thursday morning, third week of November. Thus began my most rigorous climbing on the trail thus far. I was also facing water scarcity: The first place to procure it is at the High Jinks Ranch (a tourist stop where one can see, among other things, a Hollywood relic of a horse carriage where Elizabeth Taylor once sat in a movie) and the second is in the mountaintop town of Summerhaven - from a restaurant or restroom - some 13 miles later.

I’d finally committed to the larger journey and caught a bus from Patagonia - I was afraid the Greyhound driver would never see me because there was no sign for the stop, just a vague description on the website of what corner to stand at, and the names on the map and on the actual signs didn’t line up anyway - but I got that ride and stayed overnight in Tucson, reaching for inspiration hoping for serendipity somehow I was going to get further north to Oracle, from which I could get on the Arizona Trail again.

On the app I found the number of a woman of a kind referred to as “Trail Angels”; she was willing to pick me up at the edge of town, where she was grocery shopping anyway, and take me back to the Chalet she owned. I stayed there cheaply - been spending too much money in Arizona because if you linger for days trying to commit to your next leg or even find out what that might be the hotel meter is running. Next day, though, I returned to the desert and the character of it was different, more the classical desert of lore.

But it climbed and climbed; I didn’t have my “trail legs” yet and I started cursing. Actually it might have been one of the most laborious days of my life, huffing it up roads with lose gravel over sand, the most treacherous surface aside from mud-slicks and wet mossy stones, I’d say, and it just kept climbing all day. But the hard-won ridgeline was gorgeous and I arrived in Summerhaven to scarf down a big cheeseburger with the works and coffee and lots of lemonade; you arrive at a restaurant from the trail and your mind’s almost paralyzed with want of everything. You want to hand the menu back: “Looks great! I’ll take it!”

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Waitress was kindly and cute and I wondered what people did up here in this little town on the roof of the world. A few days later it would be covered over from a snowstorm - heard about this from another hiker, going the opposite way as me - but at the moment my only problem was finding a campsite in the dark, as Summerhaven had no lodging (a recurring theme I’d encounter on the trail). Experienced hikers may have thought this issue a trifle and me a little ridiculous for worrying about it, but I’d committed myself to documenting my journey on film - maybe I’d carve out a place for myself in this age of social media, as the mysterious traveling author - and that meant that I had to find places to stay, with outlets and preferably internet, at least once a week or so, so I could upload everything I’d shot onto my laptop (this, too, was baffling to other hikers. “You’re lugging that thing around with you on the trail?) and edit my videos.

I did voice-overs out of my books, attempting to capture “the sweep of the journey” with evocative (I hoped) phrases like “fallow fields bear fruit on the Other Side” and “we are always at the hub of perception, the choice point from which our world is determined”. I returned to Oracle with knees a little sore, more from the descent than anything, you’re always bracing yourself for a landslide when you go down those rock-over-sand paths…

The trail south of Oracle began fairly mellow, but once it began climbing it rarely stopped. One particular stretch, much of it a steep double-track of loose stone, demanded five hours struggle (with frequent breaks) for me to make eight miles. Still waiting on those trail legs! I was concerned about the one liter of water I had carrying me the whole way (the temperature was cool - in the fifties - but the sun was shining).

The struggle with the climb cost me so much time that the sun was setting while I was still eating in town. There’s no lodging in Summerhaven, like I’ve said, so I was obliged to head back out to the trail and backtrack in the dark - a path cutting alongside a mountain, steep rise to my right and drop to my left - to find a campsite. Amidst all those climbs and drops, patches of tall grass and rock, by sweet serendipity I landed on an ideal spot within half an hour aided only by a headlamp. One of my greatest accomplishments as a hiker to date.

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Stillness, communion… well, except for my mental chatter, all those internal protests. I didn’t know where the grail lay. “Keep moving” seemed a vague and nebulous scheme but it was all I had.

I ate at the Sawmill Run again the next morning and spent some time chatting with the gentleman working at the Mount Lemmon Community Center. I considered that the best strategy for getting back to the High Jinks Ranch (the closest water resupply) would be to really “camel-up”, in hiker-speak, in town. The road back was no easier (though maybe less physically taxing) downhill than it’d been uphill on account of the treacherous rock. You have to be braced every step of the way down. This led to my second night of searching for a campsite in the dark; this time it took longer because I drifted a mile or so off trail before I realized my mistake.

I got picked up at the trailhead by a trail angel and brought back to her very hiker-friendly lodgings, The Chalet Inn.


The Arizona Trail: North from Patagonia

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This trip began with a couple of false starts. The most time-consuming one involved an alternate route (ostensibly due to road work) that turned out to be unnecessary. I’d been overly-dependent on GPS-app navigation and had trouble following the written directions for the alternate because I was still getting hip to the lingo (“Turn left out of the wash and follow the double-track towards the ridgeline”).

When I finally reached the trailhead I met a lady - a trail angel, as they say - who visits various places along the Arizona Trail to leave jugs of water for hikers. After a couple weeks of solo hiking with only brief breaks in a town where I didn’t know anyone, “my senses were sharp for any human contact,” as Kerouac wrote in “On the Road”.

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Temperatures began dipping below freezing overnight (it was now mid-November) and so I started sleeping with my water filter and phone inside my sleeping bag. I also built fires most nights, something I’d never done in New Mexico on the CDT. I’d come from Vermont, where the varieties of trees are vastly different for the most part, and yet ironically foraging was much the same: Dark wood that’s more stubborn and smoky and the lighter (both in terms of weight and color) wood that burns quicker.

Some of landmarks along this stretch included Walker Basin trailhead, Casa Blanca Canyon, Anaconda Creek and Bear Creek. Arizona had experienced an unusually rainy October and surface water - sometimes running over the trail - was plentiful. Sonic boom sounds sometimes reached me from the army outpost on the other side of the mountain, as well as the retort of hunters’ guns, all of these strangely surreal sounds to hear in the wilderness.

Another thing distinguishes traveling in Arizona from what I’ve experienced in the East: The roads ride along the crests of the hills. You become conscious of such things when you’re obliged to huff it up all of those rises.

A snatch of poetry written on the trail:

There’s no greater

Divinity

but where it’s

fumbling its way

forward with

your fingers in

the fertile

dark

Gropes forward with

your hands as the

verdant sun

Peers out of

your eyes at

its immaculately muddied

reflection

Meanwhile I wrestled with the core conundrum of how to proceed on the Arizona Trail when lodgings were scarce along the way. This may not pose a challenge for someone whose first priority is to thru-hike the trail, but it complicated my own desire to document the journey on video - a task that requires occasional downtime in places where I can recharge my electronics, get online to edit and upload, etc. I finally found a promising “second base of operations” - the little town of Oracle, just north of Tucson.



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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