She threw down the gauntlet in such a casual way via Facebook private message. “Why don’t you,” she said, “Write an essay like this about our hike today?” Very well. I love to hike. I love to write. The only problem is, the example she attached is that of a well-known uncategorical naturalist, wilderness lover and advocate. So what am I supposed to say? “Move over Edward Abbey, I am here to write poetically about today’s hike with another great old broad – a regular rock toucher – a tree hugger – a lover of dirt in the great outdoors and fastidious, clean, professional detail indoors”
Contemporary that I am, I am no Meloy, Childs or Tempest. In fiction, I write about the philosophical struggles of relationships; girl meets boy, nefarious religion tamed, childhood injustices overcome. Truth is, the best way to ferret out these bits of philosophical thought and what I really think is to take a hike. Sometimes a stroll by running water, other times rigorous switchbacks on high desert boulders, and still less frequently, a hike with a friend.
“I believe that there are semblances between seemingly disparate ideas if we can stand back and see a larger picture.” Terry Tempest Williams
Very well then, I whole-heartedly agree. I take up the challenge – daily.
Leadership and Perseverance
It was 6:45 am and she was still sleeping in the neighboring room – with the door open for circulation. Should I wake her? Or should I steal out the door and commence hiking alone? She has been meeting fellow hikers fairly frequently at 7:00 am, I reasoned. So I texted, “Want to hike before it gets too hot?” We were at the trailhead by 7:30 – Gold Star to Wildwood – not a maintained trail but we were at least familiar with both ends. We dropped a car at Wildwood and set out for adventure. We got beauty. Red rock outcroppings and rock formations galore – all the features you never notice from the busy valley below. We followed the path, we followed washes, we followed wildlife trails. We got back on the beaten path and made our way along “the bench.” We confirmed that desert bighorn live here – all over the place. “You are a good trail finder,” she said. I nodded. Actually, I usually can sense where people need to go. I am also pretty good at getting them there. “People have not always acknowledged that in the rest of my life,” I said. She affirmed it was worth the steady ascent at the beginning of the trail. We found a random boulder. “I want to be on top that rock!” she said. And she did. We were not travelling an officially maintained trail and somehow we lost the usually travelled path. “I bet it is above us,” I said. “I bet it is below,” she replied. We cut straight overland through cacti, brush, chinle and talus. Then, the inevitable happened, she lost patience. “You are now fired as trail finder,” she jeered. “Where have I heard that before?” I thought sarcastically. Yet, 30 feet later, we stepped out on an unmistakably well-used trail. Some yards further on, we joined our destination trail, familiar and official. Another mile of rugged downhill hiking and we were at the car, fist punching the air, “We did it! We did it!” Hooray for us! Four hours of Wednesday morning well spent, followed by salad at an establishment that glorifies local produce.
Perception and Decisions
We made decisions. We would go early. Three digit temperatures were expected later in the day. We would explore new terrain. We would not take our hiking poles. It would be added weight. We planned on two hours out and two back – a nice half-day hike. It was beautiful. The conversation was good. After a few miles and hours on the unmaintained, but easy to find trail, we realized we had been heading steeply up, on loose rock for some yards. Not for the first time, our goal seemed just around the next switchback. Time to consider the logistics and practicalities of our return. Up is often easier than down, particularly without hiking poles. We were well out of the shaded canyon by now and sweat gathered at the hairline. Time to go back, she said. Stay right here, said I. I will go just around the next bend and see if it opens up. More circuitous trail. We turned and slipped and grappled our way down the hillside, always cautious of loose rock and cactus. The agreed stopping point was a most beautiful section of riparian canyon where we paused for repast. Lunchtime! We found the shade and comfortable, flat rocks for each of us. I withdrew my lightening pad to use as seat. Hunger pangs had been gnawing for some time now. We unwrapped apples, peanut butter, Kind bars. She checked her watch. It was 9:00 a.m.
Rocks and Relationships
I am single. She is single. We’ve both been around the block a few times. A couple of those trips ended at the alter and ultimately in divorce for both of us. Through it all, we have remained friends. We are occasional traveling or hiking buddies.
Ouray is always a good idea and it could not have been a finer morning on the Perimeter Trail. We found access easily enough. All streets lead to trails and I had camped, content and solo, there a few weeks before. Layers off in the sun. Layers on in the shade. It was an active day as we made our accent, then cut across a meadow dotted with wild flowers. Carefully, we chose our footing while descending slick dark rocks with deep claw marks of a glacier. Deep gorges and a footbridge across a waterfall took our breath away and left us weak-kneed to tunnel through caverns and surmount a mega-sized flume with the aid of a stile. Trekking between the flume and a magnificent rock wall, I was suddenly overcome by the majesty of it all. I cast myself on the rock, embracing it with all the expansive wingspan I could muster. My heartbeat pressed into the comfort of sun warmed Precambrian.
“Oh God,” she cried out spontaneously, “Give me a man like this rock!” But what I was thinking was more along the lines of Jane Austen’s perspective when she writes Elizabeth Bennet to say, “Adieu to disappointment and spleen. What are men to rocks, and mountains?”
I hug trees. I pat rocks. I embrace nature. Nature embraces me. I am comforted.
I Got Wet
It was only my left leg that got wet. These things happen when you miss a cairn.
Like all necessary road signs in life, cairns are beneficial for keeping you from losing your way.
Two miles in, the trail led up a wash. I hadn’t seen a cairn for several feet, maybe 50 yards, when I came to the pothole. I looked back, retraced my steps a bit. Nothing. Turning back around I assessed the options. The backside of the pothole ended in a 3 foot rise. The type of rolled-edge ledge that would make a pretty little waterfall when it rains in the desert. It hasn’t rained for a while. Yet here was a 5ft by 7ft puddle about 18inches deep. Some 20 feet beyond, I could clearly see the trail continue. To the left of the pothole rose a crumbling dirt wall and then a narrow half-tunnel ledge you could crouch and then belly-crawl. To the right the gray slick rock side of the pothole continued to rise steeply.
It looked like there were narrow toe-holds just above the water level. Finger holds were also available above my shoulders. Obviously, someone with longer legs than I charted this trail. This might be a good time to change to my sandals and just wade on through, I thought to myself. I reached to the side of my backpack. My hand touched YakTrax on the right. On the left, my compressed down jacket hung from a carabiner. I had prepared well for this hike, expecting all kinds of weather and packing accordingly. It is November. Ice, I had anticipated; a swimming hole, I had not. My Teva sandals were in the car, where I left them when I changed to my closed-in trail shoes at the trailhead. I chose the path to the right and commenced toe-holds and fingernails. Two steps. Three steps. And then. My toe slipped and my left leg plunged to the knee in water and sand. No way out but to wade. Leaning against the wall, I rolled up my right pant leg and undid the lace of my right shoe. Removing my right shoe and sock and holding them at arms length, I took two strides through the pool and climbed out on the dry waterfall. There I removed the sodden shoe and sock from my left foot and rung them out. Thank heavens for wool socks and shoes that already had holes in them. Also, turns out my hiking pants shed water. What doesn’t roll off quickly evaporates. You might be amazed to learn that I had an extra pair of socks in my pack and chose not to change to them. They were cotton. Carried in preparation for sand, but not water. I pressed on. I lunched in the shadow of Druid Arch. I found the preferred path around the water hole on my return trip two hours later.
Cairns are like the road signs of life. Take time to read them. If you miss several, you will be entirely lost. If you miss one or two, you merely have more of an uphill battle, a few more challenges. You might even get wet. If you fall in a pothole, get out as quickly as you can. Keep moving. Carry an extra pair of wool socks. May all your adventures have great outcomes.