The morning came cool and blue and gray. Hawkeye and I sipped coffee and watched the giant rocks and hills growing pink and rosy. We’d slept well and had a lot of energy. The end was near. Because we’d taken a day to haul water from the river up the mountain, we knew we didn’t have enough time to hike to Apache Junction. We’d continue on for a day and then walk into town. From there we’d have to figure out a new plan. But until then we had to hike. We’d have to cross the highway and up another hill. And we’d have to find the cache that we hid in a small canyon almost a week ago.
We packed up our tent and our bags as a soft mist floated over the desert. The terrain was flat and easy to navigate. Hawkeye led the way and we talked about women, books, and food—we were hungry and ready for a real meal. We’d been living off of cliff bars, oatmeal, and beef jerky. Now we wanted big juicy cheeseburgers, pancakes and bacon, ice cream sundaes drowning in hot fudge. And beer. Lots of beer. Buckets of ice cold American lager.
We knew we’d eat well when we dragged ourselves into town. But until then we had to walk. And we had to cover a lot of ground.
Hawkeye and I reached the highway early in the morning. We took a break to rub our feet, get a snack, fill our water bottles at the rest stop. I didn’t realize just how far we had to walk. I thought it was going to be an easy last day. Hike a few miles, be done by lunch, set up camp, and kick back and read some Louis L’Amour. I didn’t know what was ahead.
On the western side of Highway 60 we passed through ruins of old cabins and brick lodges collapsed to ruble. Small graves were marked with crosses at the base of trees. We wandered through decayed and forgotten ranches and deeper into the Sonoran and into the hills. My feet were really starting to ache when we began to ascend. My feet had been killing me the whole trip. It didn’t help that the trail was all flint and jagged stone. Every step made me wince.
I kept on. I followed Hawkeye and tried not to let on how much pain I was in. I started counting my steps and doing math in my head to figure out how much we had traveled. I calculated how long until we did a half mile. Then I’d start over and count again until a full mile was completed. It distracted me a little. But only a little.
When we started to near the top, Hawkeye stopped and looked at his GPS. He began nodding to himself. His eyes rolled up the way he did when whenever he was thinking hard. I stood there panting.
“We might as well set up camp relatively soon,” he said. He didn’t look at me. He stared down at the valley and the endless sprawl of Arizona.
“Why? Why here?” I said.
“Well,” he said, “pretty much from here on out we’ll be the same distance from the cache.”
“And since we’ll just have to backtrack tomorrow morning to get to town, we might as well stop, drop our bags, go find the cache without all our gear weighing us down, and come back for the evening.”
“Makes sense,” I said. “How far away is the cache?”
Now… here is where things get interesting. Apparently, Hawkeye said “0.8th of a mile.”
But what I heard was: “An eighth of a mile.”
“Yeah?” I said. “That’s nothing! Let’s go get it!”
We stripped off our bags and began to wander off the trail and through the rough brush and cacti, careful not to step in cow shit, looking for snakes all the while. The decline was steep and difficult. I started to wonder how I’d haul my cache of goodies back up through the wilderness. We reached the dry river bed at the bottom and started moving north.
“We should be getting close, right?” I said.
“Nah,” said Hawkeye.
“It feels like we should be there by now.”
“What do you mean? How far do we have to go?”
And that was when I realized how I misheard Hawkeye. We essentially had to march a rough mile through heavy sand, which took forever. And since we had to move under barbed wire fences and through cow pastures and around thorny bushes, we probably walked more like two miles. But finally we found the small canyon where we hid our food: granola bars, fruit cups, freeze dried meals, beef links, and gallons of water.
We sat on the rocks and ate salami and canned peaches. Wind whistled through the canyon, and large birds floated in the distance. Hawkeye and I devoured our lunches without speaking. We knew we wanted real food. And a shower. And a bed. The adventure of the big hike was great, but we were getting ready to return to civilization. To our homes and our friends.
The hike back to our bags wasn’t that bad. We found a trail so we didn’t have to scuttle through the wilderness again. The evening, our last one in the desert, was a relaxing one with the Arizona sunset living up to its reputation. Hawkeye and I perched barefoot on a boulder and drank black coffee and discussed what we would do tomorrow. We’d have to get into town. That was problem one. Then what?
“We get food,” I said. “And then we start drinking. After that I don’t care.”
“Okay,” said Hawkeye. “But we will need to get back to Phoenix to catch our flights.”
“We’ll figure that over beer,” I said.
The next morning we hiked back down the hill. We sang old Guns n Roses songs to keep our spirits high. We kept talking about how much beer we were going to drink. We started singing “99 Bottles of Beer,” and we actually finished the whole damn song, too.
Going downhill wasn’t that bad. But then we returned to the highway, which we had to take into the small town of Superior. We had about four miles to go. Hawkeye wanted to run into the Boyce Thompson Arboretum, but I decided to sit by the side of the road, take my shoes off, and rub my feet instead. The hard blacktop was murder on my dogs.
Finally we stepped into the city limits. We scanned for some place to eat. We didn’t care about quality or price. We just wanted food.
We wandered into the Buckboard City Café like two old prospectors or wild men who’d been stranded in the wastelands. We took off our packs and collapsed at a table. I’m sure we smelled awful. A waitress appeared.
“Water,” said Hawkeye.
“Water,” I said.
We ordered the biggest hamburgers they had. We devoured them in seconds. Then we ordered another round of cheeseburgers. I wanted apple pie for dessert, but they were out, so Hawkeye and I split a cinnamon bun and slurped down some room temperature coffee. The diner was nearly empty. Hawkeye noticed that there was a bar on the other side of the restaurant. He went and checked it out. When he returned he told me they’d open in about ten minutes.
“Sounds good to me.”
We paid our bill and drifted into the saloon. The bartender was a large man with a thick white beard. He said his name was Roy. We all shook hands and ordered our first round. Roy used to be the mayor of Superior and had lots of stories and was one of the kindest guys I’d met. Hawkeye and I sat outside and took off our shoes as we drank our beer. I saw a skinny guy in short-shorts marching toward us. He had a big ’70s style mustache and wore sunglasses that shined like jewels. He carried a heavy backpack on his shoulders. When he got close to us he asked if we’d been on the Arizona Trail. We said we had. He smiled, took off his pack, pulled out a pack of Marlboro Reds and lit on. He’d just gotten off the trail himself. He’d been hiking all the way from the Mexico border but had to get back to Iowa tomorrow for work. He said his name was Taylor but his trail name was Slug.
Taylor joined us for the rest of the night as we drank beer and listened to Roy tell us all about Superior’s history and his youth growing up in the town, how the place had changed. A tamale festival was going on, so the one hotel was booked, but Roy said we could set up our tents in the back, and that’s exactly what we did after we got our fill of Budweiser and IPAs. Other folks started coming in. Miners and cowboys. All friendly and eager to buy us a round, glad to hear how much of the trail we’d hiked. It almost felt like we’d been coming to that bar all our lives.
In the morning we crawled out of our tents and returned to the Buckboard City Café to get breakfast. Hawkeye fiddled with his iPad to secure us bus tickets back to Phoenix. Taylor had a buddy coming to pick him up. Hawkeye and I got a photo with Taylor before we went our separate ways. But as we stood on the corner waiting for the bus, an SUV sped by and Taylor stuck his head out the window and screamed “Adios, my friends!”
And that’s where I want to end this. I could tell you about the bus ride back to Phoenix, our navigation downtown, our search for hotel, the dinner of Thai food, and how Hawkeye was finally able to Facetime his wife and son again. But all of this is really about two friends hiking around the Superstition Mountains in Arizona, two guys out in the rough desert away from people, technology, and everything. To write about our return might not dilute any of that, but I feel the adventure ends in Superior. That’s where we stopped walking. That’s where we left the trail. That’s where we concluded our big hike.
Writer living in the hill country of Texas