Hawkeye and I rose early the next morning. Our legs stiff with the desert’s chill and the previous day’s descent and climb. In the dark we fixed our oatmeal and our coffee. We stared in hard silence at the licks of blue flame from the stove while we waited for the water to boil. Dawn came over the mountains as we pulled on our packs. Though our limbs ached, our feet throbbed, we also felt rejuvenated and confident. We had water, plenty of water, at least for the day. And we knew we were close to the pinnacle of the week’s climb. Once we reached the top it would (mostly) be downhill.
And it was easily the best day of the trip.
At least for me.
We climbed to the crest fairly easily and soon. The sky still had some streaks of plum and nectarines in the horizon, and the air was still cool and fresh with the sunrise. Looking out and across the desert lay a land untouched by man. The cliffs and the rocks rose out of the ground as twisted statues of forgotten and lonesome gods.
We walked slowly and tried to breathe it all in. It wouldn’t be long before we’d be on a plane and back to our respected lives and jobs and all of it would just be memories. We didn't talk about it. But we knew we were both trying to remember every detail as best we could. The cacti, the rocks, the sapphire sky without end, even the pain in our feet. We found ourselves stopping a lot and gazing at the distance and listening to the silence, maybe the wind through the valley and nothing more.
The day grew warm.
We had several miles to go until we reached the next water spot, which was a water cache where people left jugs of water—some for themselves to find later, some donated by other hikers for people like Hawkeye and myself. I didn’t tell Hawkeye, but about two miles out I was out of water. I knew I would be okay, but I felt embarrassed for consuming it all after we’d gone through the dangers and the hassle of collecting water just the other day. My feet were killing me, but I tried to move quickly. I figured it was best to get to the water cache as soon as we could. When we crossed over the dry river bed and saw the brown iron box, we hesitated before opening the door. I think we were both afraid that we might open it to find it empty and then we’d be in trouble. But the cache was fully stocked with gallons and gallons of precious H2O. Hawkeye and I hugged each other in exhaustion.
We set up a little shelter using a tarp to shade us from the sun and refilled our camelbacks. For lunch that day we ate beef jerky, salami, dried fruit, peanut butter on tortillas, and cliff bars. I took off my boots and let my feet breathe. As we sat there about five people came by on horseback. We said hello and they decided they’d have lunch there, too. One gentleman approached us and asked us what was with the iron box.
“It’s water cache,” said Hawkeye. “People put jugs of water in there for anyone who comes along.”
“You mean like Mexicans?”
Hawkeye and I glanced at each other.
“More like hikers like us probably.”
“Are you guys packing?”
Hawkeye and I noticed he had a snubbed nose .38 strapped to his hip. Having grown up in Arizona I was used to seeing people open carry, but I think Hawkeye was a little confused.
“Nah,” I said.
“Oh, man, I wouldn’t be out here without a firearm. You don’t know who you’ll run into.”
The man started to tell us how undocumented workers wandered through the Tonto National Forrest on their journey from Mexico to Phoenix, but I stopped listening. I had met plenty of guys like him before. He had a thick New Jersey accent. He was riding a horse out in the desert without a hat.
“Where are you guys riding from?” I said trying to change the subject. I wasn’t sure how close we were to Apache Junction, but we’d encountered other horseback riders from there.
He shot me a look with a shrug.
“From the parking lot! Where else? Idiot.”
“Ah,” I said.
When he and the others got back on their horses and rode away, we all waved and wished them well. As soon as they were out of sight I turned to Hawkeye and said, “Well, that guy sure was an asshole,” and we broke out laughing.
TO BE CONTINUED
Writer living in the hill country of Texas