“Miles and miles of miles and miles.”

– 18th century itinerant evangelist, John Wesley 

Cinching our backpack hip belts and picking up our hiking poles, we paused to let the weight settle on our bodies. The morning desert sky was cloudless and the scraggly peaks were backlit by the coming sun.

And as he has done on every backpacking trip together, Nels declared, “Let’s take a walk.” 

He wears gloves on this morning and I only wish I had dug mine out of the bowels of my pack. Frost seems odd in the Sonoran desert of Arizona. But two mornings found us shaking a hard frost from the tent. We were on day four of our ninety-mile journey on the 800-mile Arizona Trail that runs the length of Arizona from Mexico to Utah.

Before we began the hike, an Arizona friend of Nels, a retired Iowa farmer, expressed to him his concern for our choice of outings. “You know,” he said, “you two aren’t youngsters anymore.”

His concern is legitimate. Why hike any of this rugged Arizona Trail? My simple answer is, “Because I can.” I am fortunate to have a body that works relatively well.

With daylight coming coming on we break camp quickly and begin the walk to warm up. A flock of Gambrel’s quail flush off to our left. Down in a cactus thicket a canyon wren bubbles its Sunday morning hymn. Banter between us is irregular and usually brief. As usual, as is our practice in backpacking together, we will save extended conversation for breakfast. And that won’t happen until we put in an hour two of hiking.

After our trailside breakfast and energized by coffee, we hoist and settle into our packs again. We return to the quiet rhythm of walking. The sun tirelessly climbs higher behind us. Soon, the skinny trail becomes more of an uphill walk and then the pitches become more severe with switchbacks traversing the ascent.

My uphill strides become shorter and more measured. I stare at the trail in front of my feet to avoid loose rocks. This is unforgiving country and a careless misstep would change the nature of this trek so we focus and pay attention.

The sun sears down on us.  I feel the sweat roll off my nose. I have discovered an earworm on this morning as I repeatedly mumble his opening line from Bob Dylan’s song, All Along the Watchtower: “There must be some way outta here.”

I concentrate on the precise cadence of my footsteps on the small, fractured rocks. The beat of my feet against the small stones sounds like snare drums. It is mesmerizing but soon that percussive beat is joined by a wind instrument: my loud breathing. The whoosh of my breathing is like the measured breaks of ocean waves running up on a beach.

I pay attention to my own monotonous soliloquy. “Crunch . . . crunch. . . heavy exhalation . . . deep inhale . . .crunch. . . crunch. . .heavy exhalation. . .deep inhale. . . crunch. . . crunch. . . repeat and repeat. 

Like the tiny lizards that scurry across the trail and vanish in the rubble, our conversations likewise disappear.  We celebrate the climb with pauses in  rugs of shade provided by a boulder or mesquite tree. These breaks allow our breathing and heart rates to settle. We wipe our brows as we mentally measure how much of a climb remains.  And equally important we celebrate the gift of desert water as we swig judiciously from our water bottles.

Shade and water are key elements to our comfort. If you wait to drink water only when you are thirsty you are too late. Drinking water frequently to stave off dehydration is an essential part of the day.   

These short rests allow us to turn around and settle our gaze on the surrounding jagged mountains and cactus-stitched ridges. 

This wilderness is foreign country to me. Most of my wilderness experience is of a boreal or sub-arctic nature. I am a Minnesota boy who plays in forests, rivers and lakes.   

Paradoxically, I always feel a level of joy when I experience the twin stimulants of physical exertion and remoteness.  Here, I feel so very much alive and I celebrate a body that works. I rejoice and taste the communion of gratitude and overwhelming humility. 

We lift our packs and resume our mute climb. Soon we renew the rhythm of crunch. . .crunch. . .exhale. . . inhale. . .crunch. . .crunch. 

Wild country, encountered under our own power, strips away the extraneous. Life is rendered to the most basic elements out here. Pretentiousness cannot exist. 

Freedom in the wilderness reigns like no other place I’ve known. And even though we have no physical or cyber means of connecting with humankind out here, we both find more comfort here than amongst the chew of civilization.

At midday we reached our top, 4,200 feet higher than where we broke camp at dawn. From our vista I look back feeling the satisfaction of perseverance amid the blanketing silence.

One absolute in life is that life itself is terminal. And so while my legs, lungs and heart still work well together, I’ll continue my forays into the backcountry. Partnering with Nels, luck, and good health we will explore another 100 miles of this skinny and rocky trail next year.

Because I can.

Crunch. . .crunch. . .exhale. . . inhale. . .crunch. . .crunch.

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