Posts Tagged ‘arizona’

On a Mountain in Arizona

Monday, May 14th, 2018

It is the coming down that will be the hard part, although I do not know this until the very end, until I go to pick a rock out of my sandal.

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I have done difficult hikes. I have done the Samaria Gorge, my calf muscles seizing when I rested them in the cool waters of a spring. I have done the hills of Lipari and the long, strange walks on Capri where there are none but you and the birds and the ruins of some sadistic, long-dead emperor for company. Because everyone else is on the terrace drinking wine and eating antipasto.

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I am not in terrible shape. I am 37 years old. I have swum bays and lagoons the world over. I can walk all day long. I live in a fourth-floor walkup. It’s the heat, though, that I don’t account for. And I dally. This is my problem with everything. I like to look. And in Arizona, a place I have never seen, how can you not look? Saguaros — all spines, arms up in their surrender pose — jutting out of the mountain’s crevices. Red rocks filed smooth by generations of blowing sand. Prickly things, trees, butterflies, long vistas of Phoenix and the valley below. There is always so much to see. But I spent too much time seeing and not enough time walking. Because here’s what I didn’t understand, what no one underlines boldly enough for me: You must finish the trail before the sun is high overhead. Before the boulders and handrails are too hot to touch, because these surfaces are your only way out. You can’t get out without holding on.

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We are more than halfway to the summit when I think about turning back. I can see the terrain ahead, nothing but a long pile of rocks that seem to ascend straight up, fringed by rows of prickly fauna. The leader of our little group of five has gone ahead with two of us, gliding quickly up. This worries me. I don’t want to be left behind. I don’t want to miss anything. I don’t want to be seen as slow. Too old for this. Too out of shape for this. And as I climb, launching myself over boulders and clutching at whatever can be clutched, this gnaws at the back of my mind. I do not want any part of the world to be inaccessible to me. And I don’t want anyone else to think this of me, that I am limited by by something as basic as rocks.

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It is after I have decided to keep going, somewhere along that grand staircase of boulders, that something clicks. It is not about the people who have gone ahead. They’re not me. And my muscles are capable. I can feel them and they give no obvious signs of pain or struggle. The only pain is my worry, my mind racing up the mountain ahead of my body, the fear of what people think, the pressure to go at a pace other than my own. So I stop my mind, not my body. I forget about chasing someone else, and the someone else isn’t the group that went ahead. The someone else is my own fear. And I put one foot in front of the other. One foot above the other, and I pull with my arms, and I ascend.

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I make it to the summit too late, but I don’t know this. I am transfixed by the smallness of humanity, by the dry wind. By the fact that I am whole, that I am not particularly tired, that I have seen the ultimate thing there is to see.

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I am about a third of the way down when I notice the sun on the trail, the creeping heat. But I have water. And down is supposed to be easier. That’s the logic, right? Gravity does some of the work. I set my mind on gravity. I crawl backwards over rocks that, I am only now realizing, are taller than me. I wedge my phone into my sports bra, stop taking photos. Near the summit, I dropped it on its head and shattered one corner of the glass. It functions as though nothing happened, the lines crawling across the screen like a cowbeb.

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Each step is like solving a puzzle.

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I am almost down, almost, when things start to get very bad. It happens fast, which surprises me. There is no creeping sense of fatigue building in my bones. I can feel my muscles start twitching at some point, it’s true, but this does not feel fatal. It is just a thing that my body is doing as I try to do something else. It is incidental, and surmountable. But in the heat. In the sun, with the boulders getting hotter to the touch. With my water running low. Relax, I tell myself. You’re almost done.

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I can see the parking lot when the rock lodges in my sandal. There have been others, and I have had to stop once or twice to shake them out. But this is a bigger kind of rock and it is right under my heel, its ragged point aimed straight inward. In the end it is the small rock that defeats me. I bend over, and there is something about the blood rushing to my head, something about balance and maybe a little bit of dehydration because I’m out of water. But I can see the parking lot. Civilization is reached. There will be no dying today, no matter what. No matter how your muscles quake. I just fell over. And I couldn’t get up.

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I do get up. And when it put one foot in front of the other, it’s as though I do not know how to walk. I am 9 months old. I am Bambi ready to slide into a split. I see a shadow of myself on the red dirt, bent like the hermit over his walking stick. It is a shape of myself that I don’t recognize — the curve of supplication, the weird shuffling baby steps. I arrive. I walk straight into the shade, straight toward a bench, and sit. I try to speak and cannot.

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Later, in my cool bungalow of a hotel room, on white sheets with the lights dimmed, my whole body throbbing, I will research the number of people who need to be rescued each year on this mountain. The number shocks me — 150. Five of them, on average, die. The terrain is so complicated that it’s difficult to find their bodies. They get logged in crevices, fall down ravines. They are all more or less like me — badly prepared, unused to the heat. I wonder, too, if they are like me on the inside, too — hungry to prove something to themselves, afraid of what they may never see.