Sand, Snow and Solitude
The desert is no longer benign.
Temperatures hover around the 100 degree mark and the terrain features a series of long, waterless climbs.
Rattlesnakes rouse themselves from mid-day somnolence to defend their territory - which just happens to be the trail - and then refuse to yield the right of way.
In the category of pervasive irritation, a thatch of itching, prickling, piercing grass seeds have affixed themselves to my socks and boot linings as tenaciously as if they intend to travel all the way to Utah.
Since I can't pick them all out, they may well make it there - that is, if I do.
And then there is water. Or, more accurately, the lack of water, which is the dominant fact of life in the desert, the dominant fact of life - my life - on the Arizona Trail.
In just three days, I have become consciously, constantly aware that my body is 70 percent water, and that for my blood to flow and my brain to think, and my muscles to carry me to the next water source, it must remain that way.
Unfortunately, information is as scarce as water. The rangers, after telling us that nobody hikes in the desert in June, advise us to carry all the water we expect to need. But water weighs two pounds a quart, and we each need about two gallons a day to hike fifteen or so miles a day in 100-degree temperatures.
Dan and I head uphill well before dawn in order to race the sun to the mountaintops, and we've each got 16 pounds of water sloshing against our backs. My conscious mind is more accurate than any gas gage - at any moment I can say exactly how much water is left in my canteens.
My subconscious mind is thinking about water, too, and it sees water everywhere.
Shadows in a dry draw look like water. Dead leaves on the trail look like water. Piles of pebbles look like water. Dark sand looks like water. The shiny skin of a manzanita bush looks like water.
Mirages, all of them; not water, but a trick of light and heat waves and quite possibly desire.
Better to check the map; to look for old ruined cabins (almost always built near some kind of water source), to feel for water in the cool sand under rocks in steep draws, to notice signs of animal life. Even the color green is deceptive; it can mean cottonwoods or creosote. Only one points the way to water.
I am beginning to feel a little bit envious of the cacti, who have the whole thing so well worked out.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication