Today was at first about driving. Further and further along the road, through worn mountains and angular green desert plants. Past copper mines, faded store signs, and beyond Roosevelt Dam.
We took it slow on the unpaved washboard road. Dust was a cloak behind us, curling slowly back to the road. After what seemed to be an eternity of narrow ridged dirt, we found the Apache Lake Vista.
We decided to make our way to the water and picnic there.
A houseboat came into the bay. Danny went to investigate as it looked brand new, and the guys on it had docked and were taking pictures of it themselves.
Turns out that they just finished constructing the boat. This was it's maiden voyage. Danny properly greeted them by telling them to leave, which drew laughs from both men.
Sadhu was with us on his leash and let me walk him down to the lake. He jumped on the boat and did his own little inspection before jumping off. He had fun climbing and lazing in a large Pale Verde tree like a mini panther.
We also had the luck of watching a couple set up a tent tipi hybrid. It went up quickly and simply. The couple mentioned being able to use a heater in it too. It looked very practical.
I had my headlamp in the car. We left there and took a drive through Fish Creek Canyon. We got out and admired the abundant, gorgeously designed mountains.
We made it to the top of Fish Creek Hill, which seems to wear the title "hill" as a joke like large men called "Tiny."
We stood silently admiring the many patterns surrounding us. Vast empty space and untamed desert landscape in every direction.
The headlamp, a small item that is easily overlooked. Sometimes it can be the difference between a night on a mountain and a night in your bed.
Sunday we faced the Flat irons hike again. We didn't pack heavy. Water, snacks, oranges, hiking boots, warm layer and off we went. Danny packing light means he still has a backpack with two emergency blankets, a rain poncho, knife, spoon, two or three headlamps, toilet paper, and more snacks as well as a first aid kit. His father was a Marine.
We hit the trail around noon. We took our time going up, admiring the many breathtaking views we earned through sweat and tired limbs. We reached the basin and rested near the small pool of water. We were sad that the pool was full of fetid orange peels someone left behind, sadly orange peels do not become orange trees when you put them in water. I wish they did!
There were about twenty people resting in various patches of shade in the basin.
It was a very hot day. Many people were coming down the mountain, sometimes it was like a parade you had to wait for before going forward. I noticed no one behind us. We were the last going up the mountain. We passed the point we had turned back and felt we should reach the top in a little while. Soon, we would crest the mountain. In a short distance we should see the top. I kept telling us this for several hours. My absolute certainty was absolutely found to be preposterously inaccurate although it did help morale the first dozen or so pauses we made.
We climbed higher and higher, up loose gravel and steep hard cliff faces, scrambling up and over large boulders.
Occasionally, exhausted blue trail markers stared at us as we kept going up. We began to run into less people. Many muttered about getting off the mountain before sunset. We were headed for the top. We had a goal and it was going to be met. We were prepared. Well. Danny was. I brought extra optimism, which is never really practical on a strenuous climb.
We made the rim. Two guys were just relaxing at the nexus point, watching others come and go as their trance music played quietly. They nodded as I came up onto the top of the mountain. Babies get a doctor and a nurse, hikers get a couple hippies and their dog. Both suck as much air into their lungs as they can and call out to be heard. No one knows what babies call out, but hikers call to their group an affirmation that the destination is here. It was here the whole time, but now the hikers are here as well. There is a feeling of exhausted satisfaction. Your feet maybe sore, you may be tired and sweat soaked but you climbed a mountain.
It was 5:22 pm as we took a few minutes to enjoy the view from the top. The world spread out below us. Cars moving like tiny bugs, houses just specks with rectangular rooftops. How large we feel our lives are, how important; when in perspective they are not. The issues we weigh ourselves down with are mostly ones we fabricate or give inflated importance to. Wants, desires, drives, excuses all fall away. There are real needs and real skills, luck and experience. You can teach a skill. You can't teach experience.
Danny looks at me and for the third time since the basin asks "Why didn't you bring your headlamp?"
For the third time I answer, I thought about it. I did the hike last year, we were down by four. My experience told me unlikely in needing a headlamp. My experience was wrong this time.
We turned and raced the shadows down the mountain. We were careful. Two guys who saw us on the top called out to us, they didn't know where the trail down was. Neither of them had a flashlight. They passed me once we got back to the top of the mountain. They moved liked mercury over the rocks. I hoped they would have the luck they needed.
We took our time, racing in a slower manner. Taking time to breathe, stretch muscles and not to risk our lives recklessly on our descent. Mentally, I bargained with the sun. I understood why the ancients thought it was a god. On the side of the mountain, becoming wrapped in twilight, the sun was the difference between safety and steep drop offs.
We made it a third of the way down before the last red rays sank below the black horizon. The sunset was one of the most beautiful and unnerving I have ever seen. We kept going. Danny asked where the trail was. I led. This was my fourth time walking the trail, I'm usually good after the first time. My eyes adjusted and we slowly moved forward, each yard gained only after I checked for heavy foot traffic. We wanted to stick to the main trail going down. An off shoot could be perilous.
We went slower and slower. Each time we crested a small hill and came out of shadow into nightfall it seemed so bright again.
We reached a point that I stopped. I felt the trail was pestering out and that I'd stumbled onto an off shoot. I requested Danny use his headlamp, thinking he only had one.
He got his headlamp out. I looked and five feet behind him, there was the trail. Ahead of me was a windy off shoot. We were at the backside of the steep climb up and down the mountain to the basin. I knew where we were. Danny recognized the point we had encountered rain and turned around. We were somewhat relieved. With one headlamp we had done the climb up to that point slowly, like two moths slowly circling a light. We communicated carefully, staying focused and neither took a step until their foot placement was verified by the headlamp.
I led. I read the trail. Doubts and fears snaked up. I have lived with them for a lifetime. I pushed them down and kept going down. I could see about seven feet in front of me. Beyond that was dark space. The rock was so steep that you couldn't see it until you stepped forward again. I wanted to sit down. I crouched instead. The path was here. There was no loose rock to read. The loose rock led here, led down. Straight down. We had climbed several straight up points. For every uphill, there is a downhill.
I stopped and stared. My mind played out us reaching a sheer drop off and having to backtrack. No ropes. One lamp. Danny kept me thinking, which kept me leading. He rummaged in his pack and produced a second headlamp. We had two headlamps. It was like finding out you are rich. We had double the light when we used them together. Or we could stumble around more confidently when feeling obstinate.
We reached another steep point. For what felt like a hundred or more steps, we carefully walked down the steepest surface we had found. Where were we? Had I missed the basin? The flashlight beam caught the glint of water. We were at the basin. The basin has the name for the bowl like shape, to climb to the Flat irons you climb the side of a bowl. Picture a giant rough version of your cereal bowl. We climbed it confidently in daylight, cautiously with creeping dread in darkness. It was on that surface that the sole of my boot began flapping, it had come unglued. It vanished in the dark. New boots, kept pristine for years only to malfunction on their first hike. The bottom still had enough padding to be functional, I was mindful of the limited traction I now possessed.
We had done it. We climbed to the Flat irons, we hiked down the mountain staying on the trail and without injury in the dark. We slowly made our way to the parking lot. It was after ten pm. We watched the large silver moon rise as we reached the car.
I've hiked for over twenty years, I felt foolish for disdaining my headlamp. We hike slowly, enjoying the experience rather than marching as if to a final execution. I will have a headlamp tucked away somewhere from now on.
Muscles fatigued and screaming at us that we'd overdone it, we relaxed and enjoyed the drive away from the park.
We were the last human beings on the superstition mountains that night. It was amazing. The night birds and crickets were the only sounds. We sat for a while on the way back and watched the lights of sprawling civilization stretching around the mountain as far as the eye could see. We watched the lights of planes landing and taking off. We saw patterns of red and green traffic lights, watched as red and blue lights converged on a location. It was all soundless and distant. It was all unreal.
The cactus was real. The desert wildflowers; bright yellow, orange and red that seemed to fuel the cricket songs. The stars bright in the black sky. What is real, what do we need? Meditation happens when you hike.
What do we want? What do we justify?
In the end, what determines the value of our lives? Where we go, who we choose to be, what memories we make and share, or profit margins and advertising campaigns? I think it is up to us. I think more people should step out, climb a proverbial mountain. Take an introspective look in and out.
Are you carrying your headlamp? Do you have a clue where you are on life's map? Did you know distances on the map of life are not really measured in dollars?
Meditation is important. There are many kinds of meditation. Tonight I meditate on the death of a friend. Amy Adams, laundress and sharer of wisdom died this week unexpectedly. I found out today when two unfamiliar faces were handing out quarters. I'm grateful that I got to talk with her again. I'm grateful for the wisdom she shared and the stories. My heart goes out to Pat, her husband as well as the rest of her family and friends.
Unexpectedly, life happens despite our many attempts to shape it and force it into our expectations. Sometimes for the worst, sometimes for the better. Sometimes it just is.
The best parts are the ones we get to share together, like two people working their way down a terrifying cliff face in pitch black with one headlamp.
Maybe there was a reason I left it home.