Hiking the Same Hike, 40 Years Later

You can never step in the same river twice. Stepping into the same forest, though? That's a different story.

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People say you can never go back because places change and so do you. On day four of a 100-plus-mile trek from Arizona’s Santa Catalina to Rincon mountains, I wonder if I should have heeded that warning. We’re not even halfway there. Last time we were already home celebrating by now.

That was 40 years ago. We were college students then. David and I had met in the university hiking club, and we started accumulating mountain memories in the conifer-topped “desert islands” around Tucson. Over Christmas break in 1975, David, three friends, and I planned to cross the stair-step Catalinas, bushwhack to the Rincons, and end on the far side of that range. That was the extent of our planning, and our motivation was just as loose. We wanted to see if we could do it.

Unsurprisingly, there were issues. The others quit after boot failure, hypothermia, and snow on 9,157-foot Mt. Lemon. David and I finished on night four, wandering dark roads to a ranch where we got a trespassing lecture and a ride. The future seemed limitless, and I’d found a new partner to explore it with. David and I married two years later.

In the four decades since, we remain strong, but the idealism that led us to wilderness careers proved incompatible with reality. Recently, we both found ourselves out of work and in need of a spiritual cleanse. We thought back to that trip between the San Catalinas and Rincons. So much had changed in 40 years. But had those mountains and trails? Had our memories? Had we? Could we still do it?

We knew what to expect this time and we knew how to hedge: March instead of January for minimal snow, good water, and mild weather; advance beta on trails; reservations for campsites in the Rincons; and caches dropped along Catalina Highway for lighter packs. Instead of bushwhacking from the Catalinas, we’d follow a more sensible route along the Arizona Trail, which now connected the ranges but added miles to the original 90. With the extra distance and ominous warnings that “trails are lot rougher” we budgeted eight days rather than four. With age comes wisdom, but you pay for it in spontaneity.

This time we skipped the predawn start and hiked up Pima Canyon in late afternoon among red ocotillo and yellow prickly pear blooms and camped in a small flat by Pima Spring.

It was a homecoming, but trail and terrain hadn’t proven immune to time. Fire and flooding had deteriorated the footpath. As we struggled up a washed-out gully, I recalled ambling up switchbacks in 1975 and eating lunch at the Window (a hole in the rock visible from Tucson). This time, amid ruts and rocks, we missed the route to the Window altogether.

At higher elevations, snow flurries, fog, and wind dogged us for days, but the storm departed when we left the Catalinas. We crossed perfumed fields of prairie verbena and flowering cacti through Reddington Pass foothills, but felt frustrated by how slow progress came on the Arizona Trail’s circuitous route. Even so, it sure beat bushwhacking.

We progressed, camping in sycamores near Tanque Verde Wash, then ascended Mica Mountain, passing Italian Spring and the memory of pitching our tent there in the snow in 1975. What remained was a trampled flat with blackened logs and a camping ban. By now, it was clear that the original trip, which had become a touchstone in our lives, existed only as much as we could remember it.

On our final day, we descended from Tanque Verde Peak along ridges where, finally, the subdivisions that had been built atop our memories gave way to blank scrubland, same as it ever was.

Yes, the trails had changed—and so had we. Gone were the carefree 20 year olds. In their place, on the same peaks, stood a pair of cautious 60-somethings. But we still knew how to persevere, and we still were capable of dreaming something big and then seeing it through. Returning to the terrain taught us that. In the end, the past can be just as dazzling as the future. And though either can be hard to grasp, it’s always worth the trip.