Fuck. I’m fucked. This is one of the dumbest situations I’ve gotten myself into in a long time. How did I end up here? I know better than this! I know I know better than this! Just don’t panic, I say to myself. You can’t go back and make different choices right now, but you can control whether or not you panic.
This morning when I woke at 6 a.m. it was raining. Pretty hard. And cold. The day called for a five thousand foot climb, up to nine thousand feet, where we’d stay for five miles before slowly dropping down again. I left my shelter, sleeping bag and stove in the trunk of the rental car for slackpacking (Alan is meeting us 18 miles in, at the trailhead before the final 2 miles to the terminus) and put on the only clothes I had, having sent away all my extra layers. I put on my running shorts, my ultralight down jacket that’s greasy and flat from use, my outdoor research helium rain jacket that’s been through so much brush over the years that it’s not the slightest bit waterproof anymore, and is functionally just a windbreaker. I did have a warm hat at least, and at the last minute Alan lent me the golite windpants he was carrying, which billowed hugely on me. By the time my pack, with two liters of water and a day’s worth of snacks, was clipped onto my back, I was already soaked from the rain, and my hands were already too cold to use my poles, which I kept stashed in my side pockets. Spacemaker was in the same situation, except his puffy was synthetic, so it would provide a bit more warmth when wet. SP had a real rain jacket and wasn’t slackpacking (he had all his gear), and planned to take it a bit slower- he wasn’t sure he wanted to reach the monument today, as his girlfriend wasn’t picking him up until the next morning.
And here’s the part I’m really embarrassed about- I was wearing a cotton t-shirt. I’d picked one up at my storage unit in tucson and I dunno- it just felt good on my skin after six weeks wearing synthetic. I’d worn it yesterday on our sunny 30 and it had felt great. But also, I talk so much shit about cotton in the backcountry, because of the way it pulls heat from your body when it’s wet. Cotton kills! I like to say. I mean, I know that cotton is nice in the heat, but storms come in fast in the desert during shoulder season, and the temperature can drop forty degrees or more. If you do wear a cotton t-shirt as a base layer, it’s nice to at least to have something synthetic to change into if a storm comes. The storm was already here, I was climbing up to nine thousand feet, I didn’t have a synthetic layer, and I… decided to hike anyway.
Now it’s ten a.m. and I’m soaked to the skin, my down puffy soggy and cold against my body, and the rain, up high, has turned to snow, and forty mile per hour gusts are buffeting me, turning my face numb. The golite wind pants are stuck to my legs, translucent with water, and rain trickles down the back of my neck. My hands are clenched into fists inside my soaked sleeves, and my feet are numb and aching in the inch of snow and slush. I need to move as fast as I can these eighteen miles, or I’ll become hypothermic. Aside from a few gluten free oreos and some takis I had the first hour of the hike when I was still down low, I’m not eating, I’m not drinking, I’m not stopping to pee. I’m calling on all the power in my legs, everything I’ve built these last six weeks, to carry me over these mountains and through this storm. I can’t remember the last time I did a five thousand foot climb this fast. I don’t let myself feel the altitude as I reach the elevation of the ponderosas, I don’t let myself stop to catch my breath. Spacemaker is with me- we’re hiking together, checking in on each other- You ok? Yeah, I’m ok, are you ok?
As soon as we reach the ridge we start to run. The trail is blessedly smooth, but it’s hard to run for very long at nine thousand feet and then the trail is rocky again and I’m slower, still pushing myself as hard as I can, stumbling over the slippy rocks. The ponderosas are tall and dark, draped in cloud and shaking in the wind, and I know on another day I would love this forest, find it peaceful and soft. Not today though. The wind changes direction and blows sleet into our faces, stinging our eyes. I’m moving fast enough that I haven’t yet lost the heat in the center of my core, that small, warm room with its door shut tight against the wind. Not yet. Manzanitas crowd the trail and brush against us, drenching us further. Some of the slush on the trail is starting to turn to ice. There’s a Dirks Bentley song that I think of in times like this-
If you’re going through hell
Just keep moving
Don’t slow down
If you’re scared don’t show it
You might get out before the devil even knows you’re there
There are lots of trail junctions, and I keep having to pull my phone out and open guthook to make sure we’re going the right way. My phone is in a Ziploc- did you know you can use your phone screen through a Ziploc? And I keep expecting it to die from the cold, but somehow it doesn’t. Stopping for even a moment to navigate lets the cold sink deeper into my body, and I have to push away panic again. There’s one set of footprints on the trail, slowly filling with snow, and we joke that it’s divine intervention- Even Jesus wears Altras! It’s actually the hiker Mountie, who’s a few hours ahead of us- we’ll learn later that her phone died on this godforsaken ridge and she had to text a friend on her inreach mini at each junction to make sure that she was going the right way.
“We’re gonna get off this mountain,” I sing as we jog along the trail, my feet like ice blocks, my sopping clothes stuck to my skin. “We’re not gonna get hypothermia!” Alan texts- he’s hiking up from the other side to meet us, for fun. I ask him to bring a stove, my shelter and a few sleeping bags. As long as I can keep pushing this hard I’ll be ok, but it’ll be good to have supplies just in case.
Down. We want the trail to go down. It doesn’t though. The ridge keeps gaining, up towards Miller peak. On a sunny day this would be a beautiful hike. But right now I want off this mountain. I want to leave the elevation of the ponderosas, for the elevation of the oaks. And then down to the junipers and the prickly pears and the yellow grass. Don’t panic. And then we’re there, at the highest point, before we bomb down. Spacemaker and I holler and high five. The descent is rocky, but my hands are still too cold to use my poles. We go slip-sliding down the trail, every step bringing us lower. The forest turns to burn and then we turn a corner and drop out of the cloud- below us we can see the low valleys, the mountains to the south. Mexico. The snow is gone, although the icy wind still blows, and I’m still drenched to the skin. Then Alan is there, hiking towards us, his bright yellow frog togs jacket whipping in the wind.
“Welcome to hell!” I shout and then the three of us are jogging together, down the mountain. My legs are burning but I still can’t stop. An hour later there’s a bit of shelter from the wind and I strip off my top layers and replace them with Alan’s dry puffy, which he brought in his pack. He has to help me zip it because my fingers don’t work. I finally piss- I’ve been holding it for hours. Spacemaker dumps a bag of sour skittles into all of our palms. The flavor is like fireworks in my mouth. I think I was bonking. I extract the takis from my pack and carry the bag as we continue to descend, slower now, shoving damp chips into my mouth whenever we hit a patch of smooth trail. Having a dry puffy on feels like a dream. I can feel warmth gathering against my skin. At 2:30 we reach the parking lot. The rental car has heated seats. We leave our packs in the rain and start the engine, turn the heat up high. The windows fog. We pass around bags of chips, finally drink water. The car dash says 38 degrees- I wonder what temperature it was up on the ridge? What a wild eighteen miles. I can’t seem to stop shivering, but after an hour and a half my clothes are mostly dry, and I start to feel better. Mountie appears- she just tagged the border. We invite her into the warm world of the car and she gratefully accepts. Spacemaker, Alan and I brave the wind again, and make quick work of the last two miles. It’s golden hour at the border, the light on the yellow mountains incredibly beautiful. An unfinished section of the stupid border wall looms like a ship’s prow over us. Like absurdist art. We take lots of photos at the monument. I strip down to just a shirt and shorts for photos, for consistency? Since that’s what I hiked most of the trail in. Even though it’s so much colder today! My knees squeak and my thighs burn on the 1.8 miles back to the trailhead. I’m cooked. Absolutely cooked. But strong! And now it’s over. I finished the freakin Arizona Trail!
The car is a warm ship in the dark night as the four of us make our way to Tucson- we’re dropping Mountie and Spacemaker at a motel there, and Alan and I are gonna stay at my friend Aspen’s house before our flight back to Alaska. In Anchorage it’s five below zero right now, the world all clouded light, ice fog and squeaky styrofoam snow. For six weeks I’ve put my entire life on hold- I haven’t worked on my manuscript, walked my dogs or hung out with friends- I’ve barely responded to emails. I’ve simply walked all day, eaten instant refried beans in my sleeping bag, woken in the night to clear stars and a half-deflated neo air, risen in the dark to do it all again. Now I’ll have a warm bed with two hot water bottle chihuahuas and an electric tea kettle, the woodstove at my friends’ house and movies on the projector, stew made from moose I helped hunt, the climbing gym and running until ice crusts the buff over my face. I’m not wealthy but by god, I love my life, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.
Tucson is the low desert and it’s warm here, today’s sleet storm like a far away dream. My friend’s bed is unbelievably soft and there are plenty of blankets, the familiar Tucson sound of dogs barking wafting in the open window. The cat jumps on the bed and settles on my legs. Once again, I let the dark carry me away.
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