Christmas came early this year. After a night’s unconsciousness in the Apache Junction Best Western, we came around stiff and sore, our clothes and boots worn into holes, the boots, once our best friends, now offering about as much support as jelly to a spoon, our water reservoirs boasting cultures labs would die for, our hips resenting the loss of bounce in our foam mattresses several moons ago, my right leg threatening shin splints and sane people scattering on our approach. We needed a serious re-supply and not of the Safeway bread and salami kind.
Ruth very kindly, but somewhat unwisely, offered to give us a lift to hiker heaven REI in Tempe. Despite our carefully crafted list and determination to make a speedy and efficient raid, we must have been in there testing Ruth’s seemingly boundless patience for over 2 hours. We did emerge triumphant, though, with the same but new boots, supplementary blow-up mattresses, reservoir cleaning products and snack bars galore, and a range of other essentials which, all together, made an ugly dent in our finances but put a big smile on our faces.
Glenn’s glee was compounded by a stop on the way back to Apache Junction at the Cape Cod apartments in Tempe, where he’d lived with David James, one of his best high school friends back in the summer of ’87, while earning a pittance landscape gardening in 115 degrees Fahrenheit (46 degrees Celsius) alongside illegal immigrants, who ran for cover every time the cops stopped by, leaving the few whiteys to produce their ID.
After a juicy steak supper with Ruth and Dave at a restaurant in an old mining camp and another night out cold in our toasty hotel room, the four of us set off the next morning for Summerhaven, a ski resort which crowns the Santa Catalina mountains, via thin crust pizza at the Patio in Oracle and a startlingly steep and adventurous 4×4 road with front-row views down the back of 8500 ft (2833 m), sunset-bathed Mount Lemmon, expertly driven by Dave and navigated by Ruth in an impressive display of 2×2 team driving.
After a night in a less-than-clean wooden cabin surrounded by pristine pine forest and the compulsory visit to the post office to forward our extra supplies box last collected in Oracle to somewhere ahead called Vail -an exercise which now seems a bit superfluous, as we’ve learnt to live just fine with the scant contents of our backpacks-, we hiked down to the Marshall Gulch trailhead.
No more than a mile into our hike, I felt a nasty wet sensation down my buttocks, then legs and the sweet smell of berry. My water reservoirs were leaking again, but not the normal little overflow when they’re first filled and compressed in the backpack, which I usually ignore, but rather an all-out waterfall of berry electrolyte-scented sticky wet stuff, apparently caused by the the new waterproof bag for the sleeping bag, which was ironically making everything wetter after somehow self-inflating and squeezing everything in my pack. Four attempts, very wet trousers and undies, a lot of lost time and frustration later, we finally managed to get hiking again.
The scenery was unlike any we’d seen on the trail so far: white boulders shaped like marshmallows, bald men’s heads, Gaudí chimneys and unpainted porcelain figurines standing on top of each other in increasingly extravagant acrobatic postures, poised between elegance and tumbling to their deaths or waiting for the roadrunner to give them a shove to squish the coyote into oblivion.
Our campsite that night was one of the most spectacular so far. Surrounded by the surreal rock formations, under pine tree umbrellas, we were on a little solid rock plateau of our own, with a campfire we used and another carved into a rock shaped like a UFO.
The next day was the 22nd of November -Thanksgiving- and Glenn was keen to make it back to mobile coverage and a hot meal to be able to call his family and celebrate the occasion. There were 5600 ft (1867 m) of descent, 3000 ft (1000 m) of ascent, over 14 miles between us and the Gordon Hirabayashi trailhead and the strong possibility that there wouldn’t be any mobile coverage to call our ride, but we figured we might just be fit enough to make it and that we’d give it a go.
For a while now, our hiking’s had a lot more in common with skiing than walking. We kind of throw ourselves at the trail, steering in mid flight with our poles, using them to slalom round switchbacks, vault us over rocks and brake us when we miscalculate or the slope’s impossibly steep.
So we threw ourselves at the trail, up through a water-filled marshmallow canyon and left down the mountainside, with the trail dodging giant boulders and making the flight-height view of Tucson below appear and disappear with disconcerting regularity, down across Romero pass and back and forth across the rock-strewn Sabino Canyon creek below, shaded by ancient cedar trees, copper-coloured sycamores and other brightly coloured vegetation, and on past Hutch’s Pool. The saguaros appeared in the early afternoon, perched in their narrow altitude band, looking down at us wondering what all the hurry was about.
Downhill can be just as tiring as uphill. My arms were aching from braking with my poles, one hand decorated with a gleaming white new blister, my calves hating my guts. Just as we were at our most tired, the last 2500 ft (833 m) ascent, shown as a gentle downhill on the Arizona Trail, rose up ahead of us. We were losing speed and sunlight as we dragged our packs past several confusing trail junctions misrepresented on the map and up the mountainside, a sharp stick I accidentally flipped up with my boot impaling itself in my left shin.
Just before it went dark, we saw the road carved into the mountainside not that far now above us. Glenn had managed to get mobile coverage and called Jeannie, who had agreed to pick us up, to say we were about 20 minutes from the road. She started the hour-long drive out to meet us. We donned our headlamps, congratulated each other on making it and hiked up towards the road. We popped out onto a little plateau and Glenn found a steep and slippery trail heading towards where we’d seen the road. It was completely and disorientatingly dark by now. We slipped and climbed, dog tired, but the road never showed its head. We could see car lights in the distance, but they disappeared behind a mountain when they should have been coming above and past us. Realising we were lost, it was dark and the map was wrong, we called Jeannie to cancel the ride, feeling down and despondent to have failed afterall.
But there was one other trail -a gravel track- off the little plateau below which I thought we should try, so we slithered back down the hill and down the track. Miraculously, an Arizona Trail marker appeared where the map assured us there would be none. Although unsure where on the trail we were, we kept hiking with renewed energy for another two miles or so, incredulously stepping out into the Gordon Hirabayashi WWII prison camp for the internment of US citizens of Japanese origin (shame, shame), where some surprised RV campers offered us to join their Thanksgiving BBQ and a place to sleep, but we were on a mission. We weren’t ready to admit that we’d thrown ourselves down a mountainside, down a creek and up another mountainside partially in the dark for nothing and we don’t quit, so we started hiking down the Catalina mountain highway.
There weren’t many cars coming by, and those that did for some reason seemed unkeen to pick up two sweaty hitchhikers on Thanksgiving. And then Glenn looked to the side and caught the eyes in his headlamp. LOOK OVER THERE!, and sure enough, there was a large pair of mountain lion eyes glaring back at us. Just then, another car came round the bend and I stuck my thumb out. They drove past, but must have seen the disappointed looks on our faces, because they turned around and came back to get us. Miriam and Stoyan turned out to be mountain rescue volunteers, who said there had been a couple of previous mountain lion sightings in that very spot. They’d just rescued us from a very long night and maybe worse. Thank you!!!
They drove us down the mountain to a Best Western in the centre of Tucson, where we were just in time to order a giant burger and a beer next door in the company of some fantastically drunk, bored Mexicans who really, really wanted to tell us endless bad jokes and for us to join in, when we only had the energy to eat, drink and breathe. Glenn managed to phone his family, and we gave thanks that the eyes were all we’d seen of the mountain lion.