There weren’t other people back here. If you’re lucky, you’ll come across another AZT thru-hiker, but I wasn’t lucky. Though I was treated to a remarkably beautiful sunrise, my emotions and my will would be tested on this day.
Not realizing that just yet, I got busy capturing the sunrise, hoping I was close enough to Ripsey Wash so that some of the photos could be used for the area. Clouds in the sky were glowing various pastel hues of pinks and purples. Orange light followed, bursting the landscape into a fiery warm glow. Every color reflected off of the plant life, prickly pear cactuses especially. The giant saguaros acted as giant torches, leading into a million arbitrary directions. With light like this, I couldn’t take a bad photo.
I was eager to take advantage of the light for as long as I could along the trail, so I got to work packing up and breaking down camp, my tent poles reminding me that I’m fortunate to not feel any adverse physical effects from my night under an electrical current. As I got moving, I tried to use a different camera lens, which wasn’t as comfortable under the conditions.
Rather than stabilizing the lens, which is what that feature is supposed to do, it seemed to have the opposite effect – Image Shakization. I panicked. My day was off to such a great start too! I watched a beautiful sunrise. I had a great breakfast (the same as the previous three weeks). I was alive and had not fried to death overnight. But now I was worried that my telephoto lens would be useless, at least with the stabilization feature on, which is of course a big help for non-surgeons like me.
I didn’t want to keep going without what was quickly becoming my primary lens on the trail. I was getting upset, but I calmed myself down. “Get away from these damn power lines and try it again,” a rational voice from out of thin air said to me. That was great advice actually.
The power lines were left behind as the trail began to veer a bit more eastward about a mile later. I nervously picked up my lens, pointed it, and forced my finger down ever so slightly onto the shutter button. The fear of it continuing to fail was offering nearly as much resistance on my finger.
I broke through it finally, and it worked just as it always had. My lens was still in great shape. The power lines must have had the same temporary effect on my lens as it did on the tent poles. At least I hoped that was temporary.
I was soon descending into Ripsey Wash proper, an area that corrupt and lost businessmen never see in person. If they did they wouldn’t be trying to exploit it for short-term private interests. It’s certainly nothing that’s going to achieve National Park status any time soon, but it’s quiet. It’s peaceful. Relaxing. Calming. We need areas like this. We need preserved areas that aren’t jaw-dropping in some way. Just a place where the subtle beauty forces you to look for it so that when you do finally see it, after searching and watching and waiting, it opens up to you.
Once seen, a place like this will show you how every natural piece of the world is interwoven and linked with another. It shows you how no location deserves any more protection than another. It all deserves protection. It’s all just as valuable. It’s the yin to the national parks’ yang. The trough in the wave. The counterpart. One can’t exist without the other. It’s all just as beautiful and just as moving in every way. Some places are just better at hiding it. Most humans, tragically, are too impatient to look for it.
In our modern world of immediate answers and spontaneous social media sharing, we’ve completely forgotten what patience is. We’ve completely forgotten how to just sit and enjoy a place. We’ve forgotten why some places still need protection. In our increasingly rushed and stressed lives, we need grander and grander scenes to snap us out of the cycle of constantly rushing to the next destination. The Teton Mountains, the Grand Canyon, Yosemite Valley, they don’t have that effect on people anymore. The next potential scene will either be from outer space or some natural disaster so unimaginable it will make Hurricane Katrina look like a wading pool.
If people need that to appreciate nature, how can a place like Ripsey Wash be saved? It’s remote. It’s primal. It’s wild and unforgiving. It’s no different in those respects than its neighbors of Saguaro National Park, the Pusch Ridge Wilderness, the Superstition Wilderness, and many others. But it’s secretive. It wants you to look for its beauty. To do this requires more than just driving up and looking at it. You have to relax. You have to open yourself up. You have to study it. You have to immerse yourself in it. You have to feel it and live it and get dirty in it.
That’s why businessmen see it on a map as an expendable area. No one cares about it because no one has time for it. Only a few dedicated Arizona Trail thru-hikers who may or may not see it as more than a section in between the mind-blowing areas.
I for one loved it, but I’m just one naturalist who listened to it while I was passing through.
I left Ripsey Wash after mingling with some bees around the water cooler and began my ascent up The Big Hill in the Tortilla Mountains. I wasn’t expecting to gain much elevation for the day, and yet, here I was climbing a big hill, ascending to a grand point high above the landscape where views extended into the farthest reaches in the area. A spectacle of desert scenery. A yang.
The cool spring wind blasted me at the top, giving me a burst of refreshment my body needed. One of those winds where it’s gust after gust that feels like it’s just sweeping the sweat off your body.
I was about ready to enjoy myself when my eye picked out something on the other side of the valley. Once I noticed this blot on the landscape, the atrocity of the scene opened up all around it. It was the destroyer of my playgrounds. A saw to the yang. The crusher of dreams (almost literally, actually). I was staring at an enormous strip mine, taking pristine and beautiful mountains and reducing them to a useless unnatural pile of rubble. It may very well be one of the most heartless processes on Earth. I fear for the person that sleeps soundly knowing they’re destroying in months what took hundreds of millions of years to create. Not just the growth of them, but the erosion of them. The plant life that’s evolved with them. Mountains that lived below an ocean at one point, then thrust up over a period of time human minds can’t even fathom. Earthquake after earth-rattling earthquake pushing the peaks ever higher to the sky. Ancient birds learning to fly from their cliffs. Animals finding endless refuges in just one extraordinary range. Then, through the evolutionary magic of plate tectonics, the mountains cease to grow. They stand there, iconic and bold, a testimony to the powers of Mother Nature. But their time is over. Other mountains will reign. The weathering begins and these mountains begin to shrink, ever so gradually over another unfathomable hundreds of millions of years. The plant life changes. The animals migrate in and out. New species discover them in changing climates, bringing new plants with them. Soon, something resembling the Sonoran Desert adopts the mountains and continues to alter the surface of them. But the heart of these mountains have been through much. They’ve seen it all. Almost.
Through eons and eons these mountains stood, giving a home to flora and fauna looking for a home, welcoming all who visited, including the humans. And in less than the blink of an eye of these mountains’ lives, they were reduced to rubble. A massive pile of rubble because they had copper or uranium. Something that just happens to make greedy slugs greedier. Something that’s used to make things for a few years until the next breakthrough comes along. But it pays now. In this moment. So down with the mountains. Never mind the repercussions or the long-term effects.
Not exactly the nicest view to have a late afternoon snack over. I kept most of my attention to a different direction.
I headed down the Big Hill, eager to get the destruction out of my sight, and out of my mind. I began to look for other things to think about. The nice weather. The mine. Doing well on the trail. My loneliness. Oh yeah, that old thing.
My loneliness was starting to get to me. I wanted people to talk to. I wanted to hear how someone’s day was. I wanted to tell them all about mine. Freakishly unusual thoughts for someone who typically just wants to be left alone. In an odd twist of fate, my thoughts drifted to my family, my parents specifically.
Growing up was a struggle. I never felt accepted, not through any fault of their own, but moreso from classmates and peers. I never felt like I fit in. This applied to my school life and thus, extended into my home life. My three siblings also seemed to find their place easily enough in the world, but not me. I suppose that’s the recipe for a black sheep in the making. As a result, my teenage years were a never-ending nightmare.
I went to a small private school where I wasn’t just a nerd, I was the target nerd. This was of course before the terms ‘geek’ and ‘nerd’ were trendy and desirable. At a time when Nintendo had never been more popular, I single-handedly made it uncool to talk about in public. I was an easy target because I was never very violent. I always just seemed to absorb the abuse and bullying, and then escaped into video games after school. Of course no one sees the long-term effects, especially the kids dishing it out.
I was the middle child of four kids. My sister was the other middle child, but being the only girl in the mix, she typically got special treatment. In high school I was never really able to connect with any of them. My older brother was already off at college, while my sister and younger brother often ganged up on me, having achieved much more success in popularity than I had. I never felt as though I could turn to my parents because I felt as if they wanted me to fit into a culture and lifestyle that I never felt comfortable in. Thus I felt as if I was disappointing them. So I spent most of my teenage years jaded, lost, and feeling like I didn’t have a place in the world.
My parents were never mean. They were loving, caring, and incredibly nurturing. They wanted nothing but the best for us, hence the small private school – a great education. Hence the lifestyle and culture I never fit into – successful socialites in the southern scene. They were raising us to have a good life, but there were so many other things calling me in a different direction. I didn’t know how to listen to them then though, so I labelled myself an outsider, a loner, a freak. That was all that made sense. Some people had a place in this world, and some didn’t. I was the latter.
Needless to say I struggled to connect with my family when most people are forming much stronger bonds with theirs. So when my parents insisted I call or text them whenever I could on the trail, I understood, but there was also a bit of a nagging feeling to it. And yet on this evening, for whatever reason, I was genuinely missing them and I couldn’t place why.
I thought a lot about these things as I descended the Tortilla Mountains and worked my way to the Gila River as the sun began to dip beyond the horizon. I setup my camp, had a bland generic dinner, knowing there was hot pizza a few extraneous miles away, and checked to see if I had a signal. Nothing. I walked up to the deserted highway. Still nothing.
I was alone. More alone than I could have ever imagined. I was hopelessly alone in an unfamiliar desert. All I wanted in this moment was to feel loved, but I was completely cut off from the civilized world. I reached back to thoughts of my family. I knew my parents did the best they could and I knew they loved me. I had made it roughly 250 miles and I could hear it, for the first time in my head now that they were proud of me. I wanted to call them. To hear their voices. I wanted to tell them everything. I wanted to talk to them because I wanted to connect with someone in that moment, but most importantly, I wanted them specifically because I so desperately wanted to hear that I was loved. I wanted to feel loved. I wanted to know that if the desert swallowed me up and I disappeared, that it would matter to someone.
This is loneliness. I realized that I was never actually alone growing up. As much as it felt that way, and as much trouble as I had relating to them, they were always there. Always wanting the best for me. Always providing for any opportunity I wanted to explore. I thought I was alone back then, but up until this moment, I’ve never known what it meant to be alone. But now I knew.
There was no one around. I was alone in the middle of nowhere with no way to communicate with anyone, and it had been building for three weeks. In all my years of searching for solitude, I had found it. I found the deepest depths of it. I found the solitude I had always dreamed about finding, and it sucked.
This was the end of my day, a dramatic day on the trail. One that taught me that, on one hand, something I had always sought out was not at all what I wanted, and on the other, I love my family. I missed them and I wanted to make more of an effort to see them.
Depressed, sad, and alone, the exhaustion took over and I fell asleep quickly. Thankfully.