It was just after New Years that my buddy David “Hawkeye” Latham called me up and asked if I wanted to do a big backpacking trip. He’d been reading about the trails in Arizona, which is where I’m from. He said he wanted to see some saguaros with their arms stretched out like they were being robbed. January was shaping up to be a bad month, and I was losing my mind a bit. I needed something to look forward to. I needed to get away. I needed an adventure to shake me up. I was more than ready to hike back into the desert.
It took some planning. Lots of e-mails and phone calls. Lots of lists. But in mid-March we met up in Phoenix and headed east toward the Superstition Mountains. Having grown up in the Grand Canyon State, I knew that those mountains had a lot of bad mojo—lots of folks died in those hills. Some people went missing looking for treasure, others claimed to have seen giant Lizard People. Most of the men and women who never came back alive were the hikers who tried to walk across the desert in July and August with little water. Anyone who has read Urrea’s The Devil’s Highway will tell you that’s a bad idea. But March was wonderful for hiking the hills and valleys of the Sonoran desert. Never too hot, never too cold, and with a bit of color in the cactus flowers and a faint mist in the mornings.
Our first few days went wonderfully. It stayed overcast and sprinkled a bit as we trekked in the mornings. We were miles away from everything. We followed the Gila River for miles before turning north and into the Tonto National Forrest where we wandered by steep cliffs and rugged paths of stone and sand. My legs and back were strong. David and I carried probably between forty and fifty pounds on our backs—maybe more. We aimed for roughly ten miles a day and kept a moderate pace. But it wasn’t long before my feet were killing me. I didn’t know my feet could hurt that bad. And then, as if being alone in the desert wasn’t enough, we ran into our one fear: We ran out of water.
We’d finished the day’s hike without coming across any of the water spots on the map—or those spots had been dry as a barrel of dust. Latham and I sat down on the narrow trail and looked out across the valley and the scarred mountains around us. We caught our breath and talked out the scenario. We could abandon ship. We could try to press on and hope for the best, which was the most risky option.
But Goonies never say die.
We waited until dark. We got a little sleep but then, at 2:00 AM, we got up, emptied our packs in the brush by the trail and descended five miles back toward the Gila River. We took our Camelbacks and anything that might be able to hold water. Plastic bags, bottles, jugs, and cans. A person can go days without food. Water was more important. It wasn’t too bad a walk. It was cool in the early morning, our packs were now super light, and we were going downhill. We made it back to the river by the dawn.
It took us a while to fill up everything. One of our water pumps broke on day one. But we were not in any rush. We sat by the cold rushing stream and filled everything we had with precious H2O. We rested and ate a simple breakfast of tortillas and dry salami. By the time we returned to our stuff at the top of the mountain we were exhausted from lack of sleep, adrenaline, and pushing ourselves to retreat and return through the desert. But we’d done it. We had plenty of water. That night we ate our freeze dried dinners and treated ourselves to scalding black coffee for desert. We slept under the stars ready for the gravy of the next day.
TO BE CONTINUED
Writer living in the hill country of Texas