This time last year I was walking into the blooming Sonoran desert. I started hiking on March 10th in Grants, New Mexico on a route that would take me west across the desert to the PCT. As I wandered into Pie Town three days later, however, the world seemed to have imploded.
A virus and a new term—“social distancing”—had taken over. I kept walking, unsure of what else to do. I was about as socially distanced as I could get, setting up my tent alone among the piñon and juniper trees.
I soon reached the connection with the Grand Enchantment Trail, but snow and spring runoff had me rerouting myself along the infamous, barely-there, fire-and-flood-damaged trails of the Gila River.
Cat claw and other thorny bushes shredded my clothes and my body. I criss-crossed the creek on fallen logs and eventually made my way out of a narrow canyon beneath the old ghost town of Mogollon.
As I walked into nearby Alma I turned my phone on again. I was greeted with a photo from my sister showing the empty grocery store shelves. I got a room just down the road in Glenwood and as I picked up my resupply from the post office, I ran into a friend’s mom.
While these small towns had not been affected yet, I knew the pandemic was indeed making its way in as I tapped elbows with her as opposed to hug her — one sign that something was awry. I called everyone — my brother, who is an ER doctor; nursing friends; and other friends and family. I didn’t know what to do. Everyone said keep hiking. So west I went.
I crossed the Blue River and passed a rancher on horseback who said, “I ain’t seen no one out here on foot before.” And there it occurred to me that some of the most rural places were better prepared for a pandemic than any city.
As I climbed back up high into the mountains, clouds blew in and the rain started. I had not planned to go into the town of Morenci, but when I hit the highway I realized it would be a miserable night out as the rain turned to sleet. My clothes were soaked and walking was the only thing keeping me warm. I headed down the highway, planning to hitch a ride with any car that came by. An hour later and I was still walking, with nary a car in sight.
Out of the clouds I could make out the highway snaking its way down the mountainsides. I felt like I was in Jurassic Park, not the desert. I had a bar of service and called the only hotel that popped up on Google. I inquired about rooms and if there was anyone around who could pick me up — dusk had fallen and there would be many more miles to walk in the rain.
They gave me the sheriff’s number and an hour later I was sitting on the hard metal seat in the back of his cop car. The rain hammered all night and although I felt odd about the ride I was glad not to be hypothermic.
The next day I walked out of town beneath the tailings piles of the giant copper mine that owns Morenci, a surreal experience in and of itself. It was beginning to feel like an oddly apocalyptic journey.
I continued on the Grand Enchantment Trail and eventually hit the Arizona Trail. I had run into a handful of GET hikers during the previous week, and then met all the AZT hikers as I made my way south, still continuing with my original route.
When I reached the border I crawled through the fence and sat for a while staring out across the hills into Mexico. I knew I couldn’t continue west from there as I had planned with everything, even trails, shutting down. But it didn’t matter. Nothing much mattered anymore. So I caught an empty Greyhound bus back north to where I had connected into the Arizona Trail and continued hiking.
When I reached the northern terminus of the AZT, instead of celebrating finishing a trail, I immediately turned onto the Hayduke Trail. Having hiked it the previous fall I was eager to explore some of the alternates.
I followed spring into the canyon country of southern Utah. Eventually, as the end of May rolled around, temperatures soared and water sources dwindled. After 1,400 miles, I crossed the Henry Mountains again (oh how lush they seemed compared to the heat in the canyons below!) to end in the ol’ watering hole of … Hanksville, Utah.
I’ve asked this before as it still doesn’t make sense even to me, but who the hell hikes 1,400 miles to Hanksville? Dunno. Me I guess.
Recently, reflecting on this past year, I wrote this:
There is the literal desert, then there is the metaphorical one. And I think this last year we were all wandering through one unsure of where we would end up, or if there would be an end. But fortunately now it seems there is a light down there at the end of the tunnel. We just gotta keep walking in order to get to it. One step at a time.