Sand, Snow and Solitude

Traversing the Arizona Trail
The Four Peaks Wilderness
The Four Peaks Wilderness

Thorns claw at my sun-burned skin, and no matter how hard I bash my way through the shrubs, rubbery branches spring back and grab my arms and legs.

An astonishing variety of barbs, briars, and brambles latch on and cling to my clothes with a tenacity you wouldn't expect of a plant. I've learned to recognize manzanita (red bark, springy branches, no thorns) and scrub oak (the leaves are sharp and pointy and hurt.)

I'm not much of a botanist, but I've developing my own system of nomenclature for the rest: Very prickly plant. Painfully prickly plant. Blood-thirsty prickly plant.

Stuck in a tangle, I am remembering what the ranger said.

"Nobody hikes there this time of year. Hardly anyone hikes there any time of year. Remote and rugged. 100 degree temperatures. You'll need to carry all your water. The trail's overgrown."

"Overgrown" is an understatement: We can't even tell if we're on the trail up to Arizona's Four Peaks Wilderness."We must have missed a turn," Dan says.


I stop pushing my way through the mess and consider for a minute. Either way, I don't like the implications. If we are actually on the trail, we're going to be traveling slower ? a lot slower ? than we had planned. At one mile an hour, figure 20 hours to the next reliable water source. If we're not on the trail, we've got to somehow find our way back. But to where?

On a long hike, I'm always reluctant to retrace my steps, especially when the steps have been so hard-won. In this case, I'm not even sure I could go backwards, which is what Dan wants to do.

Instead, I fight my way through another tangle and find myself standing atop short cliff. Below me, a hundred feet down and a football field away, I can see the trail emerging from the morass.

"We can just bushwhack down there," I say, refusing to accept what should be obvious: That the best way to get from where I am from where I want to be is not a straight line.

Muttering something unprintable, I slither down the cliff on my backside, yelp in sudden pain, and spend the next half an hour standing, bent over in the middle of a manzanita tangle with my pants around my ankles while, one by one, Dan removes a thousand prickly pear cactus quills from my derriere.


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