Sand, Snow and Solitude

Barren Homecoming
The White River Wilderness
The White River Wilderness

We divided the mileage into the time we had available and came up with a plan. We'd start a trailhead near Superior (about 60 miles east of Phoenix), and walking 450 miles to the Utah border in June. Then, in December and January, we'd hike the remaining 300 miles of the Arizona Trail from the Mexican border back up to where we started.

Our plan had only one problem: June in the Sonoran Desert is not what you'd called the optimum hiking season. Quoting the Papago Indians, who called May and June the "painful months," public land managers sensibly suggest that we come up with another strategy, but it's either do it this way or don't do it.

That's why, on the evening of the 27th of May, I find myself camped at the base of a 50-foot tall 8-ton water-swilling saguaro cactus in the Sonoran Desert, staring up at the startling juxtaposition of cool cactus green against a blazing desert sky.

At first, the dire warnings seem overstated. The temperature is a comfortable 80 degrees, a slight breeze blows. A flowing seasonal seep offers evidence of an unusually wet spring. So do the cactus: Fat and succulent prickly pears show off waxy yellow blooms pregnant with water, the chollas are decked out in gold, and bright crimson garlands peek out from behind the protective thorns of the barrel cactus.

Falling Under the Desert's Spell

The agave, which flower only in wet years then topple over and die, have sprouted ridiculous stalks that look like plants in a Dr. Seuss book. Even the greedy, hoarding saguaros join the party, wearing modest crowns of small white flowers that bloom only at night, when the sun and heat can't leach away their water.

It has been five years since I have hiked in a desert, but I feel that I have come home. The muscles in my face relax under the caress of the wind, and with the horizon so far away, my eyes change their focus from near to far.

Like a salmon choosing the right stream, I recognize the scent and the feel of desert before I remember that I had forgotten them: The fresh, slightly pungent smell of the vegetation, the cleanness of the dust and the clarity of the air, the suddenness of evening and how cool it gets the exact second the sun sinks, still glaring, to its rest.

And the enormous, voracious quiet that soaks up sound like a sponge soaks up water, expanding until it fills every crevasse of my brain.

Abbey's Ode

My literary companion for the journey is Edward Abbey, and I feel a smug complacency as I begin reading his famous ode to the desert.

Abbey gleefully enumerates all the reasons one should never want to go there, starting with "the Walapai tiger also known as the conenose kissing bug," and going on to describe irritations and dangers including - but not limited to - rattlesnakes, insects, dehydration, and poison ivy.

Abbey's desert is a place filled with things that things that stick and stab and stink and sting. My desert, by contrast, is benign.

When darkness falls, I put Abbey to bed, feeling just the slightest bit sorry for the old curmudgeon. I have an almost euphoric feeling of well-being as I close my eyes.


Sign up to Away's Travel Insider

Preview newsletter »