One, Two, Three, Hike!
The evening before my assault on Rincon Peak found me stuffing my brand-new backpack full to the brim with a bold assortment of camping paraphernalia mail-ordered over the years, none of which had been used. No more armchair excursions for this buckaroo; I was ready for a real expedition!
After all, I was planning to spend the night outside.
I sat in the garage surrounded by a half-dozen first aid kits, four flashlights, two camp stoves, several nesting sets of pots and pans, water purification kits, an inflatable pillow, a solar shower, a handful of pocket knives festooned with miniature tools, and a nifty hodgepodge of survival blankets, mirrors, whistles, waterproof-matches, folding-shovels, fire-starter pastes, emergency strobe lights, candle lanterns and freeze-dried meals.
“Good thing I bought such a large backpack,” I congratulated myself, cramming in another armful.
It seemed wise to add a few luxuries, like a flask of whiskey and a jar of salsa for the tortilla chips. The pack fairly bristled with goodies as it leaned against the wall. It looked like a great, green nylon sausage, near to bursting.
I lashed my sleeping bag to the top, my tent to the bottom, buckled my binoculars, camera, and sandals to the front, and tried to pick it up.
I scooted back down the wall, slipped my arms into the shoulder straps, leaned forward and forced my legs to slowly straighten. Connective tissue creaked and groaned, but held fast. I cinched the waist-strap tight and swayed out of the garage like a hunchbacked ape. My Sierra cup swung like a pendulum on its lanyard and cracked me above the eye.
I wrestled with a small problem at the crack of dawn next morning: how was I going to get my gear into the back of my three-cylinder Daihatsu Charade? I finally slung the backpack sideways with both arms and gave it a simultaneous, mighty Macarena shove with my hip. It brushed the lip of the trunk and landed with a thud on the folded-down back seat. The little car rocked on its springs, and I was off.
The trailhead was a forty-five-mile drive south and east of Tucson. One climbs Rincon Peak from the backside, as it were. The final leg was a rugged twenty-mile stretch of forbidding gravel road, which dead-ended at a grove of tall mesquite trees. Mine was the only car in sight. A narrow gate with a Forest Service sign on it heralded the beginning of the Rincon Peak Trail. The sign read: Steep, Difficult Terrain. Water Unreliable. Happy Valley Saddle 4.9 Miles. Rincon Peak 9.5 Miles.
I crept through the gate with the monster on my back and left civilization behind.
Thankfully I had purchased a trail-guide that offers fairly detailed information about the Rincon Peak Trail. I foolishly disregarded the section in the beginning which states: “.... extremely difficult trail, the most difficult in the entire Rincon Mountain Wilderness Area. Only to be attempted by expert hikers in peak physical condition…” etc., etc.
“Balderdash,” I thought, skimming through that bit, and continued on my way.
The first mile or so was a pleasant, level walk along Miller Creek. There was abundant shade, and the desert was in bloom. I whistled and chirruped with the birds. I stumbled along gaily beneath my burden and twirled my walking stick like a baton. Life was dandy.
Then suddenly I was out of the shade and in the middle of a vast field of sunbaked boulders the size of dumpsters. The creek vanished. Someone cruelly turned up the heat. The trail turned into a friable gravel rut eight inches wide by ten inches deep and commenced climbing relentlessly uphill.
The desert silence was profound, broken only by the distant hum of what I assumed were killer bees and my own labored breathing. The thought of rattlesnakes crossed my mind more than once. I paused to blow and rest my backpack on an outcropping of rock (a technique I mastered and perfected by midmorning) and glanced at the guidebook.
It said: “After a seemingly endless climb through boulder-strewn ravines and switchbacking around clumps of shadeless manzanita bushes the trail drops into an exceptionally pretty area...”
I struggled up another hundred feet of broken rock and wished desperately for the trail to “drop into an exceptionally pretty area.” It did not. The “seemingly endless climb” section was remarkably accurate, however.
The view did gradually become extraordinary the higher I went, but it was difficult to appreciate through the torrents of sweat pouring down my face and the clouds of gnats that niggled at the corners of my eyes. By then I was climbing sometimes on all fours, and making pitiful, mewling noises in the back of my throat.
Every ten yards or so I stopped to rest and drink water in gulps, downing my supply at a dangerous rate. The terrain features I was most keen to observe were outcroppings of rock at the proper height for me to back up to and rest my pack upon.
I stopped for lunch at noon, having hiked unsteadily uphill for five hours that seemed like ten. A long, flat boulder under the shade of the first evergreen tree I’d seen welcomed me. I used a horizontal branch and a cunning system of carabineers and rope to suspend the backpack in mid-air, that being the only way I could take it off without rupturing a disc. I shrugged out of it, doing only minor damage to my back, and collapsed thankfully onto the boulder. The evil ripstop nylon sausage swung from the tree with silent malice.
Water was a problem. I had consumed three out of four quarts at that point, but the guidebook informed me that pools of fresh water were usually available at Happy Valley Saddle. I looked forward to using one of my purification kits for the first time.
Not that I had much faith in the book; I was still waiting for the trail to drop me off in Shangri-La, but I had little choice. I didn’t have enough water left to go back down the mountain, and besides, something strange had happened to my legs. The chemicals that cause muscles to contract after extension had somehow leaked out of them. It wasn’t automatic anymore. I couldn’t trust my legs to take me downhill now; they were only trained to go up.
Then I heard voices! Intruders on my mountain! The place was so desolate, so remote...I never expected to see anyone else. I know now why hermits living alone in the woods hide from people. A person feels exposed and vulnerable in surroundings of such primal magnificence. It’s hard to maintain emotional barriers in the wilderness. Your soul is open and other people can look right in.
I watched the bend in the trail and listened intently. I had barely negotiated that stretch thirty minutes before, wheezing and stumbling like a gut-shot elk. I pitied whoever was coming up that cursed hill. I’d been there.
And here they came, a group of four elderly people walking briskly up the hill toward me. Their leader was a lady of seventy-five or eighty, leathery and spare. She wasn’t sweating; she wasn’t even breathing hard. She wore a huge straw hat, and a pair of water bottles were strapped like six-guns to her waist. Slung low rather daringly, I thought with uncharacteristic venom. She clutched a thick “Field guide to Desert Flowers” in one liver-spotted hand, and in the other brandished a carved walking stick decorated with shells and feathers.
She raised her stick in the air like a wagon-train scout and the procession halted before me. Her three companions took meager sips from their water bottles and stared at me. The leader didn’t even deign to drink.
I was very conscious of my sweat-stained shirt, my grimy face, my blistered feet that looked like pot-roast.
“Good morning,” she said.
I nodded pleasantly, still out of breath.
“Lovely day for a walk. We’re going up to Happy Valley for the afternoon to look at flowers.”
My mouth fell open. For the afternoon! I wasn’t even certain that I’d get to Happy Valley, let alone by afternoon.
I smiled noncommittally and pointed to my pack. “Hunnert pounds easy,” I wheezed. “Plan to stay out maybe a month or two.”
The other three lost interest in me and examined the surrounding vegetation with keen eyes, pointing out little blossoms to one another. They exchanged Latin names and thumbed through the illustrations in their field guides.
The leader looked at me doubtfully. “Oh well,” she said, “we want to be back at the parking lot by sunset. Enjoy your stay.”
I smiled and waggled my fingers at them as they left. They snaked up the hill at a rate of speed that left me cringing on my boulder. I forced myself into the harness and staggered after them, determined to advance at least another hundred yards before they came galloping back at the end of the day.
The trail worsened and became steeper. Not falling down became the focal point of my hiking technique. After a grueling two hours I crested the shoulder of the mountain, and sure enough, the trail dropped into an area of exceptional beauty.
A deep ravine was on my right, and wild grapevines trailed gracefully from Ponderosa pines on the slope to my left into its depth. They covered the path with dappled shade, and with cracked lips, I kissed the cover of my guidebook. A small creek ran through the bottom of the ravine, and for a short time, the trail led me downhill toward it. I wasn’t exactly walking at that point; I was sort of lurching forward in short spurts on columns of rubber, but downhill all the same.
After the sudden coolness and striking loveliness of the ravine, the trail made a sharp uphill swing for a half-mile. I glared at the slope and gritted my teeth. I trudged along in a stupor, reciting nonsense rhymes in time to my walk.
At five in the evening, a bend in the trail brought me into Happy Valley at last, elevation 6200 feet. The valley was filled with giant Ponderosa pines, sixty to eighty feet tall. The ground was carpeted six inches deep with fallen needles; my footsteps were muffled as I walked. The temperature dropped to seventy-five degrees in the shade, and the gnarled, granite forehead of Rincon Peak was visible about four miles away. I had made it! I was tempted to dance a little jig, but my quivering limbs ridiculed the thought.
I followed the trail another mile or so into the forest and selected a campsite on a bluff overlooking a trickle of water that disappeared and reappeared along a green belt of dense moss and rocks.
I suspended my backpack from a tree and set about making camp. By dusk, the tent was up, and a fire crackled in a Forest Service fire-pit that looked as though it hadn’t been used in a very long time. I poured a tall whiskey into a short plastic glass and watched the evening fuse to night.
The night was very quiet. The forest was very dark. I was very alone. I put some water on to boil; the clatter of pots and pans reassured me. I hummed; I looked noisily through my gear. I didn’t know what to do with myself. The silence was huge. I thought about bears.
Bears! I added wood to the fire. The flames licked at the night and cast flickering, ursine shadows in the near distance. The aroma of freeze-dried lasagna wafted through the clean air. I recalled reading something about a bear’s sense of smell being ten thousand times more acute than a man’s.
Odd rustlings in the undergrowth fractured the silence. I poured another drink. I looked at the limbs of the tree above me and calculated how long it would take to climb. I remembered that black bears can climb extremely well...
I dug out my harmonica and played as loudly as I could, wailing the anti-bear blues into the night. I hobbled in a primitive, shuffling dance around my fire. I whooped and hollered, and turned on all my flashlights. Their crisscrossed beams stabbed the darkness, but the edge of the forest was blacker than ever. I ate the spaceman lasagna in an atavistic state of panic and chased it down with whiskey. That seemed to help. I poured another and carried my leftovers a few dozen yards away from camp as a decoy.
I returned to the fire and polished off the flask, the fear of bears transformed into tipsy arrogance. After one last howl at the moon, I crawled into the tent and slept like a dead man until dawn.
When I woke up the only muscles functioning were the ones governing my eyelids. All the others had metamorphosed into lumps of tortured tissue; there wasn’t a spark of electricity among them. I could tell I was lying on my back, but only because a pinecone was wedged under my spine. I resigned myself to starve to death on the mountain because I couldn’t make myself get out of bed. My head felt like a cracked clay pot.
I looked at the tent door flap and noted I hadn’t fully closed the zipper the night before. A giant wasp with hairy legs and a two-inch stinger flew straight through the gap and hurtled toward my face. I learned later this was a tarantula hawk, but at the time it looked like some hideous being from the Inferno, and I made a noise like a stepped-on chicken.
Amazing what adrenaline can do for a person! I was on my feet and outside the tent, stark naked, in less than a second. The sun was just peeking over the eastern shoulder of the mountain, and I was a physical wreck.
I required more than rest and recuperation; I needed a whole new body. I was amazed at the depth of my exhaustion and daydreamed about pools of Ben-Gay.
After a prodigious breakfast (anything to reduce the weight I was doomed to carry), I fussed around camp. I showered with the solar shower, filled all the canteens, and attempted a few agonizing stretching exercises. I limped through the trees and glades nearby and kept an eye out for bear sign.
Mostly, though, I listened to the wild silence, a profound silence with so many parts it defied dissection. There were liquid bird melodies, the staccato jackhammer of a woodpecker on a dead tree, the abrupt explosion of a pine cone dropping through the canopy sixty feet above, the soft hum of billions of insects like the sound of a muted, distant generator. I heard the silver gurgle of the stream sliding over a mossy ledge and bubbling across rounded stones, the excited chatter of a gray squirrel upside down on a tree trunk, the rustle of a lizard darting through the bushes.
And there was the wind, the varying, faraway rush of the wind. I heard the wind always, mostly in the tops of the tallest Ponderosas, but sometimes a spiral summer breeze would rise from the desert flatlands below and advance like an infant tornado into the foothills. I could hear it progress up the mountain and into the valleys of the high country as it swirled closer and closer. I watched it bend the treetops as it rushed past on its urgent errand, showering my camp with pine needles and motes of dust.
I hoisted the devil pack onto my back and headed down the mountain, thankful for the assistance of gravity. I slid and scrambled down the trail, telling myself a dozen times I’d never go backpacking again. I longed for my armchair and my mail-order catalogs.
I cursed my pack, the sharp gravel in my boots, my derelict limbs who anointed me afresh with aches and pains, but I saw things more clearly somehow. I looked with a certain fondness at places in the trail that had nearly destroyed me the day before. I know I’ll go back to that magical place one day. I left something there, or perhaps I found something.
About the Author
Lawrence Morgan was born in Miami, raised in Istanbul, and left home at the age of 15 to have adventures. He has curated a private zoo for a Turkish industrialist, trained as a safari guide in Africa, and worked in the Hollywood film industry. He currently spends most of his time between Scotland and South Africa.