Disturbances in Nature

Sonoran Desert Sunset

Chapter 14

The Tiger Mine Trailhead overlooks a vast and intimidating desert wilderness. No grand mountains ahead. No identifiable landmarks to decorate the horizon. Few roads to provide a safe outing in case of emergencies. Just a wide open desert land. This was seclusion. This was intimidating seclusion.

The obscure dirt roads intervened only every dozen miles or so in an abyss of desert. I found myself a little nervous about proceeding. Was I in over my head? Could I make it through this next stretch without incident? If the desert swallowed me up, would anyone notice? Those are the kinds of questions the desert plants into your head that I began to find were becoming normal.

The trailhead is perched atop a hill that overlooks an immense stretch of land that gradually flattens out below to the north. I was both nervous and excited.

After being dropped off by Jacob, I was staring into dozens of miles of unfamiliar land. I had my gear tweaked and plenty of food on my back, and I could feel it. The tripod was an extra burdensome three pounds, but I couldn’t imagine continuing on the trail without it. Time would tell if that thought would persist.

As excited as I was to be back on the trail after a rushed zero day of preparing for the next 400 miles or so, there was also concern. In front of me was the longest stretch I’d be going, thus far, without any break. In front of me was 93 miles of the unknown. My only point of reference was that many years prior, while living in Phoenix between 2004-2008, I had at one point driven on a highway that traveled east of where I’d be hiking, not even enough to really establish a memory of the terrain. Now, ten years later, I’d be hiking through 93 miles of a desert I knew nothing about. I hoped I had enough food. I hoped I could find enough water. I hoped I could keep my wits about me. I hoped I had properly tweaked my systems. I hoped I hadn’t added too much weight. I hoped I wouldn’t get injured again. I hoped my injury would continue to heal. I hoped the unknown would be kind to me. Most of all, I hoped to get my giddiness back.

And so I began my short descent into the rolling hills. My pack felt heavier, but that could have also been attributed to the extra food for the extra distance, plus the tripod. The hiking wasn’t terribly scenic, but it also wasn’t terribly difficult. What it lacked in scenery though, it made up for in gorgeous desert flora. I was sure the rattling fauna wasn’t too far beyond the trail either. That thought kept me on my toes.

Sonoran Desert Hiking Trail

Otherwise, the hiking into the Black Hills was pleasant. Rolling hills gradually flattened out into a stereotypical desert the farther I walked from the Santa Catalina Mountains. A light brown landscape at the bottom of a deep blue sea was broken up by subtle spatterings of color. The hills in the distance, drawing closer with each step, wore bolder earth tones. Light brown to dark brown, deep brown to deep red, umber to amber. The farthest hills in the distance appeared black in the contrasting desert sun, most likely contributing to the origin of the name.

The hills weren’t the only colors either. It was springtime in the desert. Sanddune wallflowers created yellow rugs in open patches. Mexican poppies radiated a fluorescent orange in sporadic spots, like a desert fairy had been dropping spots of color along its sporadic way. Prickly pear cactus wore jewelry in the form of bright flowers on its paddles: pinks, purples, yellows.

The air was pleasant, and the hiking equally so. It was a good first day back out, and the miles flew by easily and effortlessly. Late in the day, I found a nice perch to setup camp, overlooking a large canyon-like wash where some locals were exploring the large washes the faux outdoor enthusiasts way, on an ATV. Nothing will take you into the outdoors without actually “being” outdoors quite like an ATV. Nothing more than a stripped down car, isolating its passenger from their surroundings in an ironically open-air environment, perpetually farting so loud it disturbs anything and anyone within a mile radius. The vehicle itself seeming to grant unending permission to take its destructive tires through any terrain it can find. Fragile desert flora? ATVs can rip through that. Eroding badlands hills? ATVs can erode them quicker! Noise-sensitive wildlife? Not anymore! Peace and quiet in the most remote desert setting? Gone!

Granted, I’d be willing to bet most locals use them properly, and only drive them in the sandy washes. And yet a few people with no understanding of what getting outside actually means will still use them in the way early pioneers used horses and guns, a way to seek out every last corner of wild and humanize it, their tire tracks acting like a flag in the ground, claiming the land for other humans to come and see. The riders so adjusted to the noise that the nurturing silence of desert becomes haunting and uncomfortable. They may stop and rest, but they’re back on the machine soon enough before nature soaks in too quickly and shows you what being outside is really all about.

Dawn over Desert Mountains

These were the thoughts I setup my tent to, the flatulence of an ATV increasing and decreasing through a maze of large washes below. It died soon enough though. Everyone needs sleep. Under fading light I looked at my map for the next day. I wanted to camp in the Ripsey Wash area to get some good photography. It’s not a spectacularly inspiring desert environment (to the average person), but it was under threat from private interests and I wanted to get good photos to help the Arizona Trail Association with their mission. This would either require an extra night out, or a 25-30 mile day. Thus far, a 20 mile day seemed like it was something for the hardcore, well beyond my abilities. I was still amazed that I was maintaining a pace in the upper teens each day. With this being a long stretch of the trail until my next food though, I wasn’t sure an extra night would be possible.

I decided to take my time and just see what happens. Maybe I could maintain a slow enough pace and make an extra night work. I fell asleep wondering what I would do the next day. After all, when you’re hiking all day, exhaustion tends to outweigh thoughts.

The next morning I was eager to see what the day would bring. I was heading into my first full day into a completely unfamiliar desert. Much of what I had seen prior to this point I had already experienced the year before, or had gotten a good glimpse of on road trips during my time in Phoenix a decade before. One place I had never seen, nor knew anything about, was the trail ahead of me. Information online and in trail resources was vague at best. This was my first full day into a true unknown. An area I had never explored or seen even by car. And it was getting warm. Time to get moving.

Bee in Cactus Flower

By the time I reached the first water source, it was getting hot. I was still in long sleeves to keep the sun off my skin, but fortunately they were very lightweight. It would’ve been hot in short sleeves too. As mentioned, there’s also nowhere in the desert to hide from the sun, unless your next water source happens to be a giant tank. In that case, there’s a nice big shadow to cool off in. Fortunately, I happened to reach one as the heat was beginning to kick in. A ladder led me up to the rim where I could reach over to fill some water, barely within reach. A few bees were naturally enjoying some R&R at the surface, but not enough to pose a threat.

I hydrated, rested, soaked in some shade, and procrastinated getting back into the heat. Maybe this taking my time thing would work well today after all. I quickly found though that sitting on the Arizona Trail isn’t nearly as exciting as hiking it. Onward then.

The rolling hills continued, up and down, in and out of washes. It was a fun and scenic meander, but then they were gone. The land had finally flattened out. The brown was also gone. I was now in a green desert of creosote bushes spread out across an open horizon. A few cattle stared at me curiously from across an unnatural and scarring fence. Wilderness wasn’t meant to have fences separating out partitions. Nature already made partitions long ago. Sometimes it’s called a treeline. Sometimes it’s called a river. Other times it’s called a mountain. But then, how could humans ever learn the errors of trying to improve nature if they didn’t ever attempt the futile and ridiculous task of trying to improve nature?

Of course in this case, it’s not so much an attempt to improve nature as it is to farm cattle in the desert. We’ve already had that discussion though. Thanks to the flat land, my feet were moving faster, away from the cattle.

Barren is an interesting word. People are given the word and they think of a vulture in the middle of a Nevada desert, or sand dunes in Africa. The land I was in was barren, but beautiful. A barren land with a carpet of green from the creosote bushes rising to my waist. A quiet crusty countryside, covered in cool colors of green below a brilliant and bold blue sky. Empty, except for this giant rock I was approaching.

As I neared it, it only increased my curiosity about it. In the middle of all this flatness, a giant 20-foot boulder of limestone? Granite? Sandstone? My amateur knowledge of geology wasn’t able to identify it. I better learn more before I get to the Grand Canyon. And yet, it looked exactly like it should be back in the Wilderness of Rocks at the top of the Santa Catalina Mountains days before. Wind had clearly eroded an overhang into its base. But what was it doing here? “Where did you come from?” I didn’t expect an answer. Instead it just stood there laughing in silence at my confusion. Have it your way then, rock. You obviously like your isolation more than me.

Boulders in Desert

I was beginning to know much more innately the isolation of the Arizona Trail. Though I had taken a zero day in Phoenix, at this point, contact like that was an isolated and unlikely event. Seeing people, talking with people, even just a quick “Hello” at a checkout register, were now becoming rare. Humans are social creatures, and I was beginning to learn that the hard way. So much so that I talked to a rock at only a quarter of the way through this trail. This could get interesting.

I kept moving forward, my knee occasionally reminding me that it was, in fact, still injured. As the afternoon began to subside into the golden light that signals a nearing sunset, another painful expression began its attempt at thwarting my successful completion of the trail. Both my feet were now beginning to throb in pain toward the end of each day. My feet? My trusty feet? We’ve gone over 200 miles already and you’re starting to act up now? Surely they had been broken in by this point.

I had no idea what was causing the pain. My shoes were comfortable. I didn’t have any blisters. I had cozy socks. Everything felt good. It’s just that toward the end of each day, my feet were howling to get out of their confinement.

But a new dilemma now. The Arizona Trail Association wanted me to get some good photos from the Ripsey Wash area. This was another 5 miles away at least. The sun was getting low and my feet were hurting, but I also didn’t want to get to a place that I was supposed to be helping to document as best I could in midday sun on a clear day. It’s not exactly NatGeo worthy lighting conditions. I’d keep going until I’d find some nice hills at least and then find a campsite. According to the topo map, a few hills were coming up to break up the flatness. My feet rebelled, but I wasn’t ready to heed their cry just yet.

Sure enough, as the sun was nearing the horizon, the landscape rippled with some small hills. The scenery was perfect. Cactus and all forms of Sonoran Desert plants were beautifully scattered all over the ground, covering the hills that rolled up from the desert sea. I could have plopped down and set up camp almost immediately were it not for the massive industrial-sized power lines running along my wilderness trail.

These things were monstrous and disrupted everything natural I wanted to enjoy for the evening. Then there was the buzzing. The incessant buzzing and zapping. There was no way I was camping with these over my head. The sun had set, but I was determined to get these electrical eyesores out of my campsite, wherever it wound up being.

“Not so fast!”, said my feet. “It’s time to stop walking. NOW!”

This time I heard them. I had been hiking into the evening past sunset, but they had had enough, and for good reason. In trying to get closer to Ripsey Wash, and in trying to get past the power lines, I had just hiked my first 20 mile day, 24 miles to be exact. I would have loved to have celebrated with a good beer, but my feet would have taken no part in it. It was time to find a campsite and fast. Unfortunately there weren’t many options when my feet threw a tantrum. Everything was either covered in thorny cactus or pointy rocks. The occasional wash offered a nice comfy campsite, but I didn’t trust washes. I had heard too many stories of washes flooding on a clear night from storms far away. And though these washes didn’t seem like they had traveled very far, I was still skeptical.

Finally, a small break in the vegetation yielded a decent place for a tent. Kick away a few rocks and it just might work. Nothing around but cactus, dirt, and a few of the brightest stars overhead beginning to come out – behind the monstrous zapping funnels of gigowatts of electricity.

Power Lines and Light Pollution

I wanted to keep moving, but I was fairly certain my feet would literally fall off if I did. They needed rest, and so this was the spot, power lines be damned.

As I began to set up my tent, I noticed a very odd sensation in my poles. There was an almost electrifying reverberation to them whenever I touched them. It made erecting my tent much more uncomfortable than usual. I thought that maybe I should pack everything back up and just get back on the trail to get away from the power lines, which were obviously having more of an effect than just annoyance. In fact I was ready to do just that when I realized I was already unpacked and simply didn’t feel like packing everything back up. I’d be sleeping under power lines tonight. Power lines so intense and large that they’re affecting the poles of my tent. I went to bed hoping that it wouldn’t negatively affect my camera or phone or any other gear I was carrying. I was falling asleep quickly worrying about my electronics, but before I fell completely asleep, I wondered if the electricity would have any effect on my head as well.

I would normally never be able to sleep in this kind of situation, but fortunately, I had just hiked my first 20 mile day, and I was too exhausted to care.