Sweat was dripping into my eyes again. I think my eyebrows were broken, I don’t sweat this much from my face. At about 5,800 feet Ryan and I had finally reached a flat portion of trail, ascending from the creek below which sits at approximately 3800 feet according to my Topo. Quietly we walked over yesterdays muddy trail. It was cracked and fissured and you could see where other hikers had scrapped the sticky muck off their soles. I sucked down water from my cammelpak about ever 20 feet with my head down concentrating on putting one foot before the other. It was about 2:00 PM and I think we were both thinking about the past eight hours as we were periodically interrupted by the burning soles of our feet, or a pain in our shoulders. Tired already and we still had some miles to go.
It was just this morning that I woke up at 5:45 to my alarm clock, rolled over to push my face back into my pillow when there was a knock on the door. Impossibly Ryan had arrived 15 min early and at the exact same time the alarm had gone off. That jerk! The drive started quietly, but Ryan was insistent on conversation, which was good, so by the time we were in Phoenix I was wide awake and able to hold not only conversation, but thoughts in my own head.
Pulling down the dusty, washboard of a trail just outside of Camp Verde in central Arizona, we parked at the trail head, lathered our selves with sun screen, arranged our packs, and put on our hiking shoes. As all hikers know this is your last chance for it all. Do I unload a little from my already heavy pack, or do I put a little more into my under-prepared pack? Do I bring a cell phone, do I have a flash light? Will I need a light? Where are we going again? Is this really a good idea? I left behind an extra pair of socks for fear of the heat on my feet, as well as my book, while Ryan left behind his third litre of water. Then we signed the register and walked.
I’d never been to this park – The Coconino National Forrest, more specifically Clear Water Creek – and therefore I was heavily intrigued by the land scape partially because it was full of red rock and green trees, desert cactus, and little critters, and partly because it was foreign and I wanted to make sure that ITEOE (in the event of emergency) I would be fairly familiar with where I was, where I had been, and the general direction of where I’m going.
The beginnings of any hike are fairly similar, especially when your trail and destination are unknown. When you first start out, you pace varies in form. Sometimes quickly paced, because you’ve got all the energy in the world, to slow and deliberate because of your fascination with the smallest rock and the slowest bug. Today was no exception to this rule. We moved quickly, talked a lot, missed the trail and would have to back track after running into a wall of cactus, and finally found “the Toilet Bowl,” a small pool of water that exits to the river by slicing between two rocks causing a small eddy and a deep slide. Hikers would walk themselves into the pool to just up stream of the water’s exit. Then they’d sit down and let the current suck them between the rocks and “deep,” about two feet, underwater and down stream by about eight feet. It was fun enough I imagine, especially in the hot Arizona sun. We told ourselves we’d jump in on our way back to the car.
From here it became more obvious that we were indeed on a hiking trail and not simply in an area where folks came for the day to lie about in pools. The trail crossed over Clear Water Creek a number of times and moved back and forth and up and down. It made me think, “who designs these trials.. and why does it go up, just to go down!? Those jerks.” We heard Hawks screeching and birds fluttering away, and to my excitement we heard and saw a small group of Javolina. One scurried across the trail and away as we approached, another stood in the shade of a small bush, while a third and fourth, skittish as they were, made vicious noises and then as I approached would hustle to the next farthest away bush where upon they’d make more noise to intimidate. The hike was pleasant, peaceful, and had just enough to it to make us feel good about the work out, the training. Our down fall came when we passed some folks on horse back.
They passed us during one of our slow, deliberate, and dry river crossings and we then passed them several minutes later. At 12:30 we stopped for lunch after our last crossing the riders parked and took a break for some swimming. The lead rider was apparently quite familiar with the trail and seemingly excited to share any information he had regarding it to us ‘first timers from Tucson.’ Earlier, during one of our other encounters on the trail, he had suggested that we do the loop, hiking out of the canyon and along the ridge back and then dropping back down to the trail head instead of simply hiking up and hiking back. It sounded like the kind of hiking I prefer. We both agreed that backtracking is awful and makes you feel like you accomplished nothing that day. At this brief meeting he offered to show us the map of what he suggested now that he was down off his mount. I was eager to see the map, given we had none of our own and again, I’m sometimes focused on knowing where I am, perhaps that’s a hiking with Mom and Dad thing or a Boy Scout thing.. who knows, it’s what I do. The map showed us about in the middle of the river portion of the hike, then a trail leading up, out of the canyon, and then along the ridge where it met up with a road for about a mile where it then turned back down to the trail head and thus our car. What I forgot to do was really read the map, count the lines, look for elevation, or simply look at where we were and where we had to get sans map. Neither Ryan nor I had any concept of what “hiking out of the canyon” entailed. Several hours later, with our heads down and our feet sore and dragging atop the ridge, we were well aware of what it entailed.
After lunch – two peanut butter and honey sandwiches, a hand full of almonds, and an orange – we proceeded with the plan, hike the loop. About a mile later the creek was now below us and we were along a small ridge about 100 feet above. We were feeling good, the climb was subtle, and the sun was not too demanding. My water was still relatively cool as it came out of the tube and Ryan and I kept a good pace. We were deceived by our apparent climb in elevation and concluded that the remainder of the hike would be similar, this out of the canyon business isn’t so bad.
We were soon corrected. Talking and walking still, the trail made a steady shift to the canyon side putting us onto a hill where we became victim to the afternoon sun. Our breaths became heavier, our feet dragged, and conversation was frequently interrupted by catching breath or gulps of water. The climb was now at hand. We still moved along the river but now in a manner of determination, the trail climbed quickly and we responded with pace. Striking us how the trail had changed, Ryan in mid-sentence made note of the of the wicked climb and we became aware of our challenge at hand. Conversation stopped and we became focused on breathing and climbing. The trail didn’t switch back or even out it just went up and up. Some steps where at the height of my knee and cactus, Palo Verde, Mesquite, and anything else with thorns lined the trail and spilled over onto it. I was determined to finish solid. We both marched up the hill huffing and hurting. Finally Ryan asked to break in the shade. From here the breaks were regular and drawn out. At each stop I would catch my breath, drink some water, and reflect.
This was the first time I’d put my feet into boots since our climb in Ecuador and before that.. I couldn’t remember. My feet had begun to burn about an hour into the hike, around the same time we were first past by the horsemen. I knew I was blistering but I needed this warm up. I needed to punish my feet for being so weak. My intentions were to start doing some heavy backbacking in the following weeks and if I couldn’t do a little day hike, how was I ever going to pack 30 miles? As it turns out punishment was delivered. It was delivered not only to my feet, but to my shoulders, knees, neck, lungs, heart, and brain. I was out of shape, horribly out of shape. I was glad we had chosen a difficult trail. Ryan seemed to be in a different state of mind. He began to have difficult seeing straight, his legs started to cramp, and his needed rest became almost crippling to his climb. At one point rest stops were separated by the distance between shade and lasted twenty minutes. I began to think to myself how I could signal for help if we became debilitated. However, every time Ryan would sit soon after he would get up and continue on with the hike just as determined and fresh as he was before, and help was never necessary.
To someone who exercises all you have to tell them is “I knew I was out of shape” and they’ll understand the exact pains you’re talking about, but to someone who has never pushed their limit, or worked themselves to a crawl it difficult to convey just how determined you are to make yourself hurt, to drive your body into the ground, to really end up at the end of the day exhausted and with no ability to fight off a bear if it so happened to want to take your hat (this was something I had thought about during one of our frequent rest stops).
We walked for and hour and a half up hill, cursing the land, cursing the trail blazers, cursing the horseman who gave us directions, cursing our selves for not staying at the creek and just swimming all day. At one point the trail dipped back down causing us to loose close to two hundred feet in altitude and evoking internal rage, the kind of frustration that comes from walking up an escalator that only moves down – yeah, it’s that silly. However, soon after this decent the trail progressed back up and we felt close to reaching the rim. Easing it’s self out, the trail had no place to go but down, looking through the vegetation we could see the horizon and save one small peak to our left, sky was all there was left to climb.
The crest was so gentle that we didn’t stop to celebrate or to take pictures the trail had become flat and there was no cornice or edge to jump off and so we marched on knowing we had three and a half more miles to go before reaching the comfort of the river again. The trail emptied into a small campsite and then to a bumpy, poorly maintained access road. And so we concentrated on putting one foot before the other, sucking down water about ever 20 feet and began to question my eyebrows and permission graned to the sweat rolling into my eyes at about 5,800 feet.
Rocky and pitted, the road required constant attention and when it finally emptied onto the main gravel road a mile later, I was pleased to ignore my footing. Regardless of the diminished difficulty of the hike, discussion was distant and we walked quietly. Another mile later the road presented a trail head and exchanging a “is this it?” “yeah,” Ryan and I turned down yet another poorly maintained jeep road which ended at a small trail that descended. We were confident of our eminent arrival home.
About a hundred feet down the trail I took the last draw of water from my tube, it then seized, refused service, and I got a little panicky. I was out of water. I focused on the third of a bottle of hot Gatorade I had waiting for me in the car. I moved rapidly, partly to keep myself occupied an to see if I still had the ability to keep footing at a rate of falling, partly because I wanted to make sure we beat the storm to the car, but mostly because I was thirsty. All the while keeping an eye on Ryan’s progress, I essentially skied down the trail on my feet in my anxiety. Beneath my feet dust turned to red rock and clay, which turned to blue slate, then to black pea gravel, to deep red pumice, and then slate again. The geology of the canyon was spectacular and as varied as any science project should be. Layers were prominent and rock specimens prevalent. All this made it that much more difficult to focus on and predict my footing, alas no accident occurred. At one point I waited for Ryan and when he caught up we took a short break. I still had no water every second I stood there I thought of nothing but how thirsty I was so I reverted to taking pictures to distract me. I looked up at the ominous clouds that had been approaching all afternoon. A dark bank now filled the northern sky and hung about the other side of the canyon. I could see them move and curl and I became fascinated with how quickly they were transforming and spinning about in the sky. I took a few pictures of the distant lightening and then did a quick scan of the local cliffs and hills. To my astonishment the canyon wall directly across from us, where the thunder storm loomed over head, was also moving and spinning. I put my camera away and became more concerned for myself and my hydration. I needed to sit down and drink some water. I told Ryan nothing and pulled out an orange to attempt to quench my thirst and yet again distract my thoughts, but this only proved that rapid decent is not as effective, nor feasible while peeling and eating an orange, so I gave Ryan half and resumed my pace.
For the second glorious time today, the trail leveled out and we had reached a calm point in the trek, this time it was the bottom of the canyon and we were less than a quarter mile from the car. The sky was dark and the thunder boomed loud. Flashes of lightening illuminated the sky overhead, but we didn’t see any local bolts and felt no rain, so our concern was sufficiently low. Back at the car Ryan stripped down and sat in the river while I unlaced my boots at the car and exposed my blistered feet to daylight. While sucking down my last of Gatorade tea, I found a pile of ants attacking a caterpillar to watch and concluded my day in nature. During the car ride home I opened my eyes once at a gas station in Anthem, then again when we arrived at In-N-Out for dinner, and lastly to watch a spectacular battle between Zeus and Thor in the western skies between Tucson and Phoenix where bolts of lightening spread a good thirty degrees of the sky. At home I set my boots and bag down and plummeted face first into my pillow – the exact position I had misplaced when Ryan had arrived sixteen hours earlier.