Total Miles: 57.5
The sweltering oppressiveness of a Deep South summer in To Kill a Mockingbird that hangs in the air with the same suffocation as that of the story’s racial injustice. The silent and hopeless expansiveness of the Texas desert that is nearly as menacing as its villain in No Country For Old Men. My fascination with the quality an atmosphere imbues to a story—the unsung character that speaks not a single line—has always been most pronounced while hiking. After all, it’s then that the backdrop of the story becomes the story itself and hiking in this empty desert landscape seemingly populated by nothing more than the five of us serves to underscore the point. Like many things that shift during a long hike, the attention that is paid to things that are otherwise overlooked and the appreciation for things that are often forgotten is heightened in a way that I find very challenging to duplicate elsewhere, even in spite of my efforts to carry home that lens from the trail.
Unfortunately for Ace, the often terribly rocky and uneven trail today was the kind of character you’d just assume leave on the trail and never take home with you. As we crossed open mesa pocked with the hardened mud hoof prints of open ranging cattle and elk herds that Sweet Pea dubbed “desert sun cups” it was impossible to miss the resemblance to the sun cupped snow of the mountains in springtime. Similarities aside, it made me wonder how many of the remaining trail miles between here and Pine would be nothing more than an exercise in teeth grinding for Ace and her badly swollen and bruised ankle.
Distractions abound while hiking, though, especially in a foreign landscape full of so many surprises such as this one, not to mention good friends to enjoy it with. Early in the day, we stopped at a rare non-cow-tank water source that snaked its way through a narrow canyon. It even had the convenience of serving as a natural ice pack for Ace’s ankle while we did laundry, filtered water and lounged on its sloping sandstone banks.
The obvious pattern that had begun on our first day continued, as the morning’s descent off the rim on well established trail was followed immediately by its re-ascent to the open mesa where the trail once again promptly vanished into nothingness. Out came the compasses and on we went.
Wandering cross-country, following the occasional herd path and leaving and joining forest service tracks of all ages under the Arizona sun has a way of making you thirsty for even the ugliest of water sources so settling in under some shade next to one for an extended lunch break only seemed natural. Next to it were the remains of several small long since abandoned structures that served as a canvas for my imagination to invent all sorts of backstories for the people who might have once inhabited them.
Pulling ourselves away from the sweet shade of our lunch spot, the afternoon rituals began including divvying up snacks, mixing electrolytes in water bottles, and of course a perfunctory dose of “hard” drugs. Sweet Pea may not look like your average drug dealer, but the bag of ibuprofen she can dole out will take you places…
The rest of the afternoon drifted past under an increasingly hot sun that made me thankful for doing this hike in April rather than what must be an unimaginably hot summer. Following gently rolling dirt tracks, we took one last break in the shade of an oversized Juniper bush not long after our first real wildlife sighting—a small herd of elk trotting across the grassy mesa.
The excitement at day’s end was the long-awaited appearance of the first stand of Ponderosa pine we’d seen thus far, despite being on the edge of the world’s largest Ponderosa forest. Visions of idyllic hammock hangs danced in my head like sugar plums on Christmas Eve.
A hard right hand turn off of the MRT in the early evening took us to another abandoned ranch next to a beautifully open pasture. With easy hammock hangs and deep clear puddles of water in the otherwise dry nearby creek bed, this was home.