I was alone. More alone than I could have ever imagined. I was hopelessly alone in an unfamiliar desert. All I wanted in that moment was to feel loved, but I was completely cut off from the civilized world. This was a new version of loneliness for me. It was so bad I was now getting bored of talking to myself.
I like my solitude when I’m hiking, but this would have tested even the proudest of hermits. My closest friends had become the giant saguaros, large friendly-looking leafless trees with arms appearing to want to eagerly wrap themselves around anyone that will give them a hug. They rise up into the air like an excited friend that hasn’t seen you in ages. Except they’re covered with a fatal amount of thorns. Hugs to nature in this part of the world are strictly forbidden.
Contact with other humans was frustratingly minimal. Here and there a person would cross my path and I would eagerly step off the trail in the hopes of a quick chat with them. Mountain bikes go by fast though, so a quick "hello" was all I would get out of them. I would sometimes encounter a day-hiker where a friendly and enjoyable conversation would ensue, but I knew that would probably be all the contact I’d get for at least another 24 hours. I couldn’t even find much wildlife to say "hi" to.
I was at the start of Passage 16 of 43 along the Arizona Trail, roughly 250 miles into an 800 mile trek across the state of Arizona, a state as unforgiving as the plants themselves. I had settled down for the night along the Gila River outside the town of Kearny when it hit me: loneliness on a level I had never anticipated. What was I doing here? I still had well over 500 miles to walk and I was already feeling hopelessly tested. That didn’t include any of the physical aspects that come with such a journey. I had already landed on a boulder knee first, blistered my feet, and ravaged the poor soles into a nearly consistent pain for reasons I hadn’t yet discovered. I was also carrying about 10 pounds of camera gear for personal reasons, the weight of which multiplied with every mile each day. Dangers still yet to be experienced included the infamous rattlesnakes, coral snakes, black rattlesnakes, black bears, black widows, tarantulas, brown recluses, human recluses, drug dealing border crossers, border crossing jaguars, and cougars (not the ones in Scottsdale).
The trail itself passes through nine of Arizona’s eleven different biomes, six wilderness areas, four national park service entities, and plenty of restaurants to serve well-made craft beer to weary thru-hikers. It travels over four different sky islands, all increasing in difficulty from south to north, the Black Hills (not to be confused with THE Black Hills), the Tortilla Mountains, the Gila River Canyons, the Superstition Mountains, the Four Peaks, the Mazatzal Mountains, and the Mogollon Rim. After a welcomed break of relatively little elevation change on top of "the Rim", there is then the task of passing down and then up one of the largest gashes in the earth’s crust above sea level, the Grand Canyon. Though the Pacific Crest Trail is about three times as long as the Arizona Trail, it’s no wonder most people that had done the former said that the latter was much harder. But in addition to the constant and dramatic elevation change, the extra challenge probably also has something to do with how little water there is relative to just about any other long-distance hike on Earth.
In the desert, water is one of those valuable resources that could cause greedy fools to trade their treasures for a few quick sips. The heat on the wrong day can dehydrate the strongest and fittest humans in a matter of hours. It’s not an apparent heat though. It’s warm, of course. But what sneaks up on people is the misleading dryness of the environment, making 90 degrees feel more like 75. In these deserts, water evaporates so fast that often rain doesn’t even make it to the ground, a phenomenon frequently seen called virga. Likewise, the sweat from your body will evaporate so fast you’ll confuse the sensation with a pleasant coolness, tricking you into believing that you don’t need as much water as you really do. Thus far, at 38 and in the best shape of my life, I was drinking about five liters per day on warm days, and four liters on cooler days. The air of these deserts can be equated most to the inside of an oven.
Needless to say, water is scarce in the desert. So where does a thirsty hiker find water along the Arizona Trail when there’s no snow melt or few running creeks? Aside from stagnant pools left from stormy weather, much of the water available to hikers is shared with what is arguably the most destructive animal that could live in the desert: cattle. These slobbering, devolved mockeries of their extinct ancestors are much of the reason a water filter is such a massive requirement on the trail. Admittedly though, I probably would have carried a water filter regardless. And of course, if it weren’t for the cattle, I wouldn’t have enough water for the trail.
So then that still begs the question: What the hell was I doing out here? Why did I leave the cozy frigid winter of Jackson Hole, Wyoming to come push my limits through the opposite environment? I suppose I started for the same reason most people do. I like to hike and I like to camp, so why not put the two together and just live in paradise for two months? Because as everyone who’s ever completed a thru-hike will tell you, and as I was in the process of learning, it’s not that simple.
Most people put in months of training just to make sure they’re up to the physical challenge of burning about 3000 calories per day. Then there’s the research that goes into making sure you have enough food on the trail, which of course leads directly into the typical working class dilemma of available money vs available time. There’s figuring out mail drops, researching the right water filter, how much water you want to carry, how much food you want to carry, how much fuel you need for your stove, if you even want a stove, finding lightweight clothes, finding lightweight gear, weighing all your lightweight gear, realizing it’s not so lightweight, starting over with new lightweight gear, eliminating standard camping gear that’s now considered a luxury, figuring out how to keep any electronics charged, researching solar panels (because that’s how you keep electronics charged), and all the other responsibilities necessary to consider before you’re even ready to actually start training.
Hiking the trail itself presents a number of other challenges not typically encountered on a standard backpacking trip or outdoor outing, especially on such a seldom touched trail. As mentioned, you will confront loneliness in a way previously unknown to you before, especially if you go alone. And I highly recommend you go alone. Going with a loved one is fun, but if you really want to know yourself like never before (and pardon the cliché), wandering alone through the desert will reveal parts of yourself that you never knew were there. You’ll discover a confidence that shapes your life. You’ll know love on another level. You’ll come away with a new appreciation for public lands and the natural world. You’ll want to repair damaged relationships. You’ll find a new motivation to accomplish other goals. You’ll be in the best shape of your life, regardless of age. You’ll have a trust and understanding in your body’s abilities like never before. And most importantly, you’ll love yourself like never before. That was why I was out here. Whether that was to be the ultimate outcome was still yet to be determined.