Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Trail Difficult to Find Beyond this Point

I've never seen myself as a city mouse, used to think quite the opposite, in fact. My ideal was to get as far away from the noise, the pollution, the frenzied mass of raw humanity, as possible. Lengthy wilderness backpacking excursions seemed a kind of training for a time when any trips I took would be in the opposite direction, some untrammeled (except by me and maybe a few select friends) region my home.

I still see the appeal in that. Yet, I've come to realize that extremes of isolation aren't actually all that good for me. And, for a lifelong introvert, being way out in the country makes isolating oneself a little too easy.

Then, here in the northeast, so does wintertime. In February, a steady period of high temperatures in the low twenties or teens, lows in single digits, had finally convinced me to forsake the bike, find other ways of getting around town...or, y’know, stay in like a hermit when I didn’t actually have to be anywhere. It made for perfect timing for a visit to friends who'd had a baby, in the low desert metropolis of Arizona.

Full disclosure: they had the baby almost a year earlier, but I waited until it was twenty degrees in Philly and low eighties in the Sonoran desert, to fully enjoy the contrast between biking in a ski mask and standing barefoot on a rock to pluck a huge, juicy, red and yellow grapefruit from a backyard tree each morning for breakfast. Went with them to the botanical gardens, the zoo, and local parks with cacti and rock formations, watched the Oscars, and read their adorable little daughter extremely expurgated toddler versions of Moby Dick, Jane Eyre, and Frankenstein.

Also rented a shiny silver Mustang—seriously, the people at the airport wanted me to have it, for the same price as whatever purely practical low-mpg Japanese compact I'd originally agreed on—and took off north one day by myself. Ten years I’d been away from the high desert and on the drive up, just seeing it out the window, remembered deep in the fascia just how desperately I love it, ipod plugged in to the dashboard, Gram and Emmylou singing twenty thousand roads I went down down down and they all led me straight back home to you.

(Meant to drive all the way to Flagstaff, where I lived for two years while getting my Master’s, to see another friend, on another day before I left, but the forecast was for snow up there, and I’d be seeing that soon enough). (This time, I was heading for my favorite spot in Arizona, an out of the way area known as the Wet Beaver Wilderness).

(Yeah, it’s really called that. You drive maybe an hour and a half to two hours north from Phoenix, forty five minutes to an hour south of Flagstaff to the Sedona exit—fifteen miles to Sedona, but go the opposite direction just a couple miles, then hike in about three and half or four above the creek, along some red rock cliffs inhabited by lizards and the occasional petroglyph, before taking a little unofficial spur trail just before the mail trail crosses the creek. Then, in maybe a couple hundred yards, you see “the crack”—yeah, it's really called that, too—an area of perfect red rock swimming pools surrounded by soft cliffs).
Got off the highway and went barely a mile before running into a road crew re-paving the road. When I first visited there, in maybe 1994, I think the road was all dirt. Now, they told it’d be half an hour before I could get through. It was only a mile or two to the trailhead, so I thought about parking and walking, but instead turned around and drove into Sedona. It’s been built up and commercialized a lot in the past decade or two (actually, as old-timers used to tell me, long before that, as well, which I have no doubt is true, but one's own nostalgic grumbling doesn't generally have that long a scope). Nowadays, you have to pay to park at a trailhead, but only if you’re gonna leave your car. So, I stayed at the car, looking up at the big red monoliths while enjoying some leftover pad Thai (homemade by my friends the night before, and surprisingly good cold). Half an hour later, I was pulling into the Dry Beaver Creek parking area, paved and a lot bigger than it used to be, but nearly empty, just then.

(According to an internet source, one thing that hasn't changed is that the lot's still a common site for break-ins. Back in ’96, I camped in there with some friends, communing with rippling water, sun, and strange dried fungi while, an hour north, the ceremony for my Master’s graduation was happening—I promised my mom I’d go to the PhD one, so she could come and see me in my mortar board and robe, and did, eight years later—only to come out and find someone had broken into my van, smashed a  $300 window for a nearly worthless Sony disc-man that skipped like crazy and the old Grateful Dead CD sitting in it. Can't say the experience wasn't worth it, though).

Leaving the rental car unlocked and empty but for the winter coat and thick shirt I'd left in the backseat at the airport, I headed into the high desert, on foot, entering the Wet Beaver Wilderness through a metal gate a mile or two in. If I’d recalled my love for the high desert viscerally from the car, to actually be out walking in it—hiking, something I don’t do nearly as much these days as I used to, and hadn’t much at all recently—was a true revelation. Back home, low-grade, seasonal depression had been edging gradually into the deeper, nastier kind. But here, in this environment so harsh that only the prickliest life can manage to thrive, hot sun reflecting magically off the slick rock, I somehow felt a peculiar renewal—prana chi kundalini life-force happiness—in an almost magical connection to something temporarily forgotten but, as it turned out, far from lost.

Once at those storied rocks and pools, I climbed around a bit, then, yogi I’ve become since those rambling semi-hippie graduate student days when I roamed here, sat to meditate for the better part of an hour.

As a semi-responsible yoga teacher, I try to be careful not to give the wrong idea about things like meditation and mindfulness—talking about, y’know, those blissed-out kinds of mental states—satori sadhana peak experiences whatever—that, yeah, might manifest for us sometimes, but not usually, and can’t be counted on...and I'm told aren’t really the point anyway...not to mention that I've certainly experienced the oh shit I guess I'm not really enlightened hangover...the feeling that mystical awakening played with my affections and then wouldn't return my phone calls...more than once...so it’s much better to focus on the average and ordinary, the ever-returning-to-the-breath-and-being-cool-with-that. And yet, they’re the awesome when they come—rejuvenating, ecstatic, trippy, and all the more special on a good day out in the desert.

So, at the risk of sounding like a not-so-cynical yogi, let's just say that's what was happening.

Feeling inspired to extend my hike, rather than just retracing the three or four miles back to the car, I head for the quite-literal heights, across the creek and up the Weir Trail—another steep steady mile and half above a steep side canyon to the Mogollon Rim, spotting hidden waterfalls deep below and feeling an almost embarrassing love of life with every step, as if living the words of my one-time idol Jack Kerouac—who, yeah, I know, could be kind of a misogynistic drunken jerk—pass here and go on, you’re on the road to heaven.

And, there at the top, at the very edge of the Colorado plateau, where high desert ends and an alpine zone begins and you can see desert below and the San Francisco peaks in the distance, just where the trail flattens out, I found a sign reading: Trail Difficult to Find Beyond This Point.

And ain’t that just the way it is?