My days were becoming more euphoric. The stresses of preparation that I had carried onto the trail were beginning to fade. I had learned how to cope with my (relatively) abundant array of electronics and was feeling good about it. The days were open and free. I seemed to have a perfect amount of delicious trail food that didn’t need cooking, and I had just enough to get me to the next stop – an average of about four days. The average at this point consisting of one stop. But so far so good! My body was feeling good. Stress was a thing of the past. I was blissfully alone in the wilderness day after day. It seemed like nothing could bother me. That is until I would look for a place to camp.
As the sun would make its daily descent, intensifying in bold rust and golden colors as it sank behind an endless horizon, I would begin looking for the least rocky location I could find.
Some hikers can sleep on a simple foam pad. I can’t. Instead, I already had an incredibly comfortable air pad that weighed only 9.1 ounces, ideal for thru-hiking. One thing I neglected to account for though was just how rocky the desert is. There are very few places where a comfortable camp can be setup that isn’t rocky. I routinely went to sleep wondering if I’d be waking up on a flat pad because of a tiny rock under my tent puncturing the pad. I needed a foam pad to absorb the rocks, but I didn’t have one. Instead, I found myself sometimes walking mile after mile just to find a spot that wasn’t too rocky.
Sure, I could always just get a cheap foam pad to bring with me, but in the world of thru-hiking, every ounce counts against you. This could be the most hypocritical advice I could give though since I was carrying about ten pounds of camera gear. As such, I didn’t want to add anything to my weight. I just kept going instead, thinking, "There can’t be that much more rocky desert."
It was around this time that I found a small man-made marker along the side of the trail. A milestone of sorts that justified such a foolish rationalization for not wanting a foam pad. All of a sudden, I felt like I was making real progress. Neatly arranged with crude rocks on the ground in about a 1’x2′ rectangle also made of rocks, was a simple ‘100.’ I had just passed mile 100 on the Arizona Trail. I was officially 1/8th through the journey. Foam pad? I’m practically a quarter of the way through! If I’ve made it this far surely I can go another 700 miles without a foam pad!
The marker came as I was making my way out of the Santa Rita Mountains’ northern foothills and into the heart of the Sonoran Desert. This is what the average person’s preconception of what the entirety of Arizona is made up of. Vast arid and dry valleys. Mountains of rock covered with sparse vegetation. And of course, the ever-present giant saguaro cactus. The only tree that can collectively create a forest where there’s no shade, for there are no leaves. Only thorns for the most careful of cactus wrens to perch on.
It’s in this area that the Sonoran and Mojave Deserts duke it out for the day’s hottest temperatures in the United States. Fortunately, that’s only in the summer. The trick with the Arizona Trail is to be in the desert when it’s still relatively cool. Then when you’ve spent a month or so hiking through the desert, you should then be ascending up to the higher elevations and into the largest ponderosa pine forest in the world where winter has only just started to subside.
Of course, weather can be unpredictable, and rumor has it summer’s grip is overwhelming winter ever so slightly each year. Fortunately, I hadn’t felt that yet. The air was still refreshing, the skies bright and blue, and the gradual and subtle downhill toward a major interruption in wilderness known as I-10 made for the most sublime hiking weather anyone could ask for. Which of course made for horrible photos. It was hard to complain though.
I couldn’t help but notice, however, that the trail was definitely living up to its reputation as a lonely trail. I usually take the road less traveled to get away from people and just enjoy nature by myself, but I found myself acting rather odd around people. I noticed I was more peculiar than ever whenever the rare person would cross my path. Instead of just returning a greeting, should one be given, I was now striking up an entire conversation with them. Very odd indeed. Normally I’m not concerned with where they’re hiking or for how long. I just want to be left alone and hike. And yet, I found myself eager to extend any chatting with anyone I could. Definitely a very curious development.
I came out of the foothills into the flattening land and took a much needed break for water and food at Twin Lakes, or so they’re called. Not so much lakes as just a pair of large stock ponds, the nastiest ones I had seen up to this point. My water filter would be tested here. But then I suppose it’s a good sign when you see little things swimming around in the mud and algae and other aquatic gunk.
While I was relaxing, and noticing I was now much closer to civilization, I took the opportunity to make the obligatory call to my parents to let them know the trail hadn’t yet defeated me.
"Still alive." "Feeling good." "Having fun." "No jaguar." "I am being careful."
It was the usual chit-chat you would expect from a seasoned hiker checking in with concerned parents. I suppose they have a right to know I’m still alive though.
After watching brown water filter into my bottle completely clear, I carried on. The vegetation was now much thornier. No more oak trees and high desert grasslands. I was now immersed in a hostile environment – prickly pear cactus, saguaro cactus, ocotillo, hedgehog cactus, cholla cactus, and all sorts of other plants covered in sharp thorns, warning anything larger than a small bird to keep moving.
There’s a subspecies of cholla cactus that was nicknamed by someone with a really dark and twisted sense of humor. This particular cholla cactus, looking deceptively soft from a distance, has a tendency to "jump" onto anyone or anything that brushes by it. You see, the branches, when mature, are very loosely attached to the plant. An animal walks or runs by (the plant hoping for the latter), and a branch simply catches the breeze and attaches itself to its savior. It literally "jumps" onto something that walks too close to it. The effect is a branch that can be several inches to a foot creating a sensation that feels like velcro. Velcro made of sharp knives and needles, that is. And since it also acts like velcro even on skin, it makes removing it that much trickier.
And the nickname given to this cactus? Teddy bear cholla, since it resembles a soft cuddly teddy bear from a distance. In some cases, a distance of a mere few feet. It was, quite possibly, the meanest practical joke ever created. Another nickname for this plant actually lives up to its name: the jumping cholla. For the next 150 miles or so, there would be the occasional forest of "teddy bear" cholla lining the trail.
This was also prime territory for rattlesnakes, my most feared creature in North America. I’ve been within 15 yards of a grizzly bear while hiking in Jackson Hole, Wyoming and still kept my cool. There’s even excitement to running into a bear while hiking. But the sound of nature’s rattle on the back of a lightning fast whip of venom will send ghostly chills down my spine. It was the one animal I would be perfectly fine without seeing. Alas, the odds of seeing one if you’re going to spend a month hiking through the desert are pretty high.
This was also a land of no trees. Sure, there are the palo verde trees and creosote, the latter giving the desert a deceptively green blanket, but they’re too short to provide any practical shade. At least for humans. Ducking under a palo verde tree is also extremely awkward given its erratic green branches making all kinds of random lines. And it’s made all the more difficult by the fact that there are usually cactus growing around its base.
There’s nowhere to hide from the sun here. It is indeed a hostile land, and I was now descending into the most hostile parts of it.