Total Miles: 2260.2
In 1953, when playwright Arthur Miller’s seminal work—The Crucible—about the Salem witch trials premiered, its parallels to the ill-conceived anti-communist crusades of Senator McCarthy were obvious. Like the real life protagonists of the McCarthy era hearings, those of The Crucible fight not only for their lives and livelihoods but to preserve what they can of their integrity, dignity, character, and values. The unspoken question that all involved mutually struggle against is: “When the dust settles, what will be left of me?”
In some sense, all struggle fits the same mold. There is the immediate, objective challenge to be navigated, and the secondary, potentially deeper cost that overcoming that challenge may exact. A cost that may be transient or linger into eventual permanence.
Take someone out for their first backpacking trip into a driving rain storm, and not only is it likely to be a miserable experience but one that leaves a lasting stain that is difficult to cleanse: a desire to have little or nothing to do with the wilderness again, to say nothing of the lasting toll it may take on the relationships among those involved.
In a far less allegorical sense, hikes of long trails are, indeed, a crucible of sorts. Slowly, rough edges of character can be either smoothed or exposed, tensions eased or further frayed. That’s true whether it’s your first or fiftieth long trail, whether solo or—perhaps even more so—with a partner.
This hike is the first of its length that I’ve had the luxury of experiencing with a new addition: a partner. Before we’d left home, various pieces of advice would trickle in to us, all of which can be summed up quite simply: “Don’t forget that you love each other.” That may sound trite, but it was certainly heartfelt and like most advice that flirts with being overly simplistic on its surface it also has the benefit of being wise beyond its words.
Our friends Beardoh & Sweet Pea, who have spent years hiking big trails together, have seemingly mastered this simple advice even in the face of fatigue, frustration, injury, and weather that can—quite literally—rain down misery. For Ace and I, stripping away our routines of home and stepping out into a daily world where all those same challenges can take on outsized importance has been a new challenge all its own.
There’s no personal value in sanitizing the reality that we’ve had our share of trials along the way of the past two thousand miles. But what those trials have left in their wake is not resentment or distance, but greater understanding, patience, and resilience particularly with respect to those circumstances that each of us as individuals finds especially trying. With nowhere to escape, the crucible of the trail presents little opportunity to avoid confronting the trials that are staring you in the face, and like the metals that emerge stronger and more tightly integrated from their testing by fire, so too can relationships. I know ours has.
The winter storm breathing down our backs began breathing its colder winds as we emerged from miles of Ponderosa pine forest and down a cactus-lined ridge towards the safety of our next resupply stop: Doc Campbell’s Post at Gila Hot Springs. As the angry clouds began to build to the west, spittles of rain would come and go, reminding us of what was on its way. By tomorrow, snows are likely to blanket this tranquil shelf along the Gila River. Fortunately for us, three other hikers—the first we’ve seen in weeks—were waiting to greet us in front of Doc Campbell’s, one of whom had secured one of the only three rooms available. With multiple bedrooms, he was happy to share and just like that, we had our warm port from the coming storm.