By Friday morning, the week’s big and little stressors have nearly changed my shoulder muscles to rock. Though I could walk off some of my tension around our neighborhood, I know from experience my soul needs something more. So at 7am I lace up my boots, grab my coat and scarf, and go.
Finger Rock trailhead sits in the foothills of the Santa Catalina mountains. Up ahead, the high canyon walls look sturdy. The sky is a time-lapse film of bunched up white clouds coasting northward. The sun hides, then returns. Invisible mist that fills the canyon soon gets caught in the light.
Cold presses the back of my neck. Creosotes wiggle in the chilly breeze. The pyrrhuloxia calls out, and I spot him at the tip of an ocotillo branch, nipping orange flowers and talking between bites. The trail winds as I climb, revealing land that’s more open than I remember. Sage, acacia and mesquites have been pruned low, likely by hotshot crews who manned last year’s Bighorn fire.
The memory of the smoke comes back. How it seeped into the house at night. By day, its unstoppable billowing above this or that peak. Along with every other horrid thing happening on the planet then, the fire signaled to me that the world was not, and would never again be okay.
Even so, the fire in the Catalinas would die in late July after consuming at 119,987 acres. Trails around these mountains stayed closed, and hazy skies lingered into late fall, because, though none of us knew it then, the west had three more months of burning yet to go.
. . .
Over the past year, my grip on my life has loosened, and not in the way meditation teachers suggest. I’ve fallen out of touch with my brother and sisters. My life-work mission seems fluffy. I can’t write. To post even a word on social media feels like showing off. What would I possibly show off?
While my internal taskmaster tracks all these screw-ups, I sometimes organize objects to ease my restlessness. And honestly, I don’t know how to fix any of this. Not even one teensy bit.
Out on the trail you get in tune with your instincts, your body. With each step, I watch my boots for movement. I stop when I need to. If I hear clattering in the rocks way high, I look for a Bighorn sheep who can scale a mountain in a vertical line. Or I listen and sniff for javelina searching for shade.
The sky is astir now, apparently at work with big decisions. Gone are those cute white clouds. They’ve all of a sudden become grey, advancing in depth and width and weight. Within a few seconds, I sense it: this mass of moisture is headed right for me.
I scan the sand for shelter. There’s a large jojoba, hip-high and rounded. I crouch my way into this orb of sticks, hug my pack and stare ahead. The walls of the canyon have darkened to a deep purple. Above the highest rocks, the sky’s the color of slate. Wind drives the mist further into the canyon.
. . .
Last year in late fall, when the Santa Catalina trails reopened to hikers, I needed to see the mountains up close, like a mother needs to see her sick kid. At certain elevations, the burn scars were visible: swaths of yucca charred to black stars. Brown palo verdes. Saguaro looking pink at their shins. I wondered how they all stood it, rooted among the rocks as the fire frolicked about and smoked up the air.
After the fire, my curiosity about the mountains changed into a wish to just slow down out there. To study it kind of, and appreciate it at my own pace. Though I’d hiked with friends for years, I had this need now to wander the trails on my own. My goal became simple: find a different trail every week, follow it for a little while. See what you see. Hear what’s there.
On each of these solo hikes, I started learning that the desert was my teacher. And I began to sense that this expansive, ever-changing school could gently guide me to a new place, rife with possibilities.
. . .
Nestled in the jojoba, I hear the rain for the first time. It’s just a gentle pit-pat against the leaves and stones around me. The tempo soon shifts to quick. I wait. My coat collar I flip up to my ears. Sprinkles dot the knees of my khaki pants.
I reach in my pack for the blank journal my son made me last year. The size of a library card, it’s covered in duct tape, bound with staples, and wrapped in a green rubber cord. I love the scissor-cut pages, his all-caps note above a tiny sketch of a cake. I knew a treasure like this could only be used for good.
I uncap my pen and write.
. . .
Gradually the clouds change clothes. The sky lightens by a few shades, and the blue elbows its way through. We get the sun back. The pace of the rain stretches out, then stops altogether.
I step out of the jojoba. The creosote smells rainy and sweet. The pinkish sand is damp. Desert shrubs are backlit by a million rainy droplets. When I see green leaves at the center of those trimmed-back plants, I realize we living creatures have much in common: namely, this fierce drive to live, despite—well— everything.
Silently I thank this place. Then I turn, and continue up the trail.