Sand, Snow and Solitude

Change of Season
  |  Gorp.com
Snow powders Coronado National Forest
Snow powders Coronado National Forest

In December, when we return to finish the last 300 miles of the Arizona Trail, the Mexico-to-Canada business gets a more literal twist when we climb up from the international border into the Huachuca Mountains and find ourselves following mountain lion tracks in the snow.

Dan is ahead of me, out of sight, but his bootprints crisp in fresh powder. I can't tell whose prints came before whose, his or the lion's. I picture us on the trail: Dan, then the mountain lion, then me, walking single file, each thinking his or her thoughts, enjoying the sunshine, the glittery snow, the rime-edged leaves, the big craggy views.

But when I catch up, Dan dispenses with my pleasant Dr. Doolittle fantasy: he's been following the tracks, too.

Short of the lion, who ultimately veers off the trail to go take care of lion business, there is no one else out here, a fact that has been true for virtually all of the Arizona Trail, with the predictable exception of the Grand Canyon.

Roaming in God's Country

Tallying it up at the end, we will determine that (except for the Canyon) in the course of 750 miles, we will have seen exactly five other backpackers in the entire state.

This solitude continues through the winter, although, as far as I'm concerned, the Arizona Trail in the Coronado National Forest in late December is what hiking must be like in heaven: perfectly marked trail, a spectacular but sensible ridgeline route, and temperatures just warm enough for shorts.

Arizonans, we are learning, take the heat with enviable elan, but they're a thin-skinned crowd when it comes to cold.

In the town of Patagonia, where we stop for our first resupply, the temperature has climbed back to 50 degrees, but people are bundled in sweaters and parkas as if they were planning a trip to the North Pole.

Our T-shirts and shorts draw undisguised astonishment."Why are you hiking in this kind of weather?" someone asks, aghast, and I try to explain that, back in the snow-choked Northeast where weather forecasters are going apoplectic over the prospect of a record snow year, we call this kind of weather summer.

Literary Coincidence

"Summer?" he says, shaking his head, "You don't know about summer." And I think to myself, oh yes I do. I most certainly do.

The last thing I do before I head back out is read the stack of mail waiting for us, c/o general delivery at the Patagonia post office. Most of it is Christmas cards from hiking friends.

The last card in the pile is from a couple Dan met some years back on the Appalachian Trail, and when I read their handwritten holiday wish, I notice with a jolt that they have chosen to quotewell, who else?my old literary friend Edward Abbey.

"May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view."

For the next 300 miles, I keep thinking how much he would have loved the Arizona Trail.


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