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The Pain and Pleasure of Hiking Alone in the Desert

Jason Mark goes into the wilderness to find clarity and ends up having to rescue himself in this excerpt from Satellites In the High Country

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My foot was killing me. As long as I was able to step flat and keep my heel and toes level, the pain wasn’t too bad. But walking evenly was impossible in that mostly trackless wilderness. I kept losing the trail, picking it up again, blazing my own. I stumbled over river rocks, mud patches, deadfalls, thickets of branches—the natural mess made by the flash floods that sometimes tear through Aravaipa Canyon,Arizona.

Whenever my toes bent, the inch-long piece of wood lodged deep between the skin and bone of my left foot stabbed into me. That really hurt.The swelling was much worse. Overnight my foot had bloated into something resembling an overstuffed sausage, and as I tried to make my way out of the canyon it throbbed incessantly.

I don’t want sound melodramatic about the whole thing.Yes, I was in a rough spot—miles away from assistance, and hurt. But it wasn’t like that guy who got his arm trapped under a boulder and had to cut off his hand. I had told several people where I was going, the exact trailhead, and my expected departure from the backcountry. It wasn’t as if I were going to die.

Still, I was nervous. I had been in the canyon a few days and had seen only one pair of hikers, who had been headed back out.There was no one around to assist me, no one to hear a cry for help even if I made one. I looked up at the salmon-pink cliffs towering hundreds of feet above and knew, with a twist of fear, that my rescue would have to be my own. Suddenly I felt very vulnerable. What was supposed to have been a fun adventure had turned dangerous. All of my energies had been distilled to a single, primal motive: getting out of there in one piece.

I leaned on the cottonwood crutch I had made the day before and took in the stillness of the canyon, its unremitting silence. For about the twentieth time that morning I pulled the canyon map from my back pocket to see where I was. I looked upstream. I looked downstream. I tried to measure how far I had gone, how far I still had to go. At least six miles, probably more, and every other step was guaranteed to hurt like hell.

There’s no such thing as bad weather, only poor gear decisions. A rainstorm is a delight if you’ve got a good slicker. Gear, of course, includes footwear. In hindsight, it’s obvious that wearing a pair of sandals on a rugged and often nonexistent trail wasn’t the best idea. At the time, though, it seemed to make sense.

Aravaipa Canyon is extremely narrow—at many points, probably no more than a quarter of a mile from rim to rim—which means that to explore the canyon you often hike right through the stream- bed. Traverse the entire twelve-mile length of the canyon and you’ll cross the creek at least forty times, sometimes in water that’s knee- deep. I had backpacked the canyon before and had found the experi- ence of hiking in cold, water-logged boots to be less than awesome. I figured that a pair of strong sandals would do the trick—open to allow for quick drying, and sturdy enough to handle the terrain. Turned out to be a bad idea.

This was my second trek in Aravaipa Canyon. I had returned there to begin crafting a personal ritual of pilgrimage: an annual solo trip to the wild, on the eve of the new year, to take stock of things, to mark and measure the progress of my life’s path. The desert is an obvious choice for such explorations. As the first prophets knew, the desert enforces clarity.There’s just the sun, the sky, and you.

Beyond the archetypes, I had a sentimental reason for heading alone into the desert. I grew up in Arizona, and for me a trip to the Sonoran Desert always feels like going home, the oily scent of creosote like the return to some original state of being. Aravaipa is an especially great place for a vision quest because it’s usually empty. The canyon is about 125 miles southeast of central Phoenix, a scant two-and-a-half-hour drive from the maze of freeways and tract homes. Yet I’ve never seen more than a handful of people there. It’s the sort of place where one can experiment with solitude, can imagine the world as newly born.

Aravaipa Creek is a rarity in the desert—a spring-fed creek that flows year-round—and through millennia the water has cut a deep gash into the Galiuro Mountains. The canyon begins with heavy slabs of dark-red shale at the bottom, rises into rust-colored schist, and then rises further into cliffs of orange-and-peach limestone. Eons of the planet’s story are visible in a glance, whole epochs etched in the span of a thousand vertical feet.

The canyon slopes are pure Sonora Desert: tall, multi-armed saguaros, writhing agave, prickly pear, and patches of gray bursage and brittlebush. It’s a world of heat and thorn and rock. A whole other universe exists just below. Along the creek grow thickets of willow skirted with horsetail reed and cattails. Colonnades of cottonwoods arch above the streambed, where cool green algae cloaks the rocks in the water.

The oasis is home to all kinds of critters. During trips to the canyon I’ve spotted mallard ducks and green-winged teals and flocks of northern pintails with their long, brown faces. Several times I’ve scared up a great blue heron, which will flap its wide wings and retreat upstream ahead of me until I surprise it again, and then again. There are whitetail deer and packs of javelina, fierce-looking with their porcupine-like hairs. Once, walking at dusk, I came across a ringtail cat in the grasses near the water. A column of white and black fur threading the reeds, nothing more. The animal was like an apparition, like the remembered half-image of a dream. Aravaipa Canyon is a place full of such marvels.

I was probably in the midst of some such romantic reverie, walking through a grove of ivory-white sycamores and not paying close attention, when I swung my left foot into the jagged edge of a log. The pain was unforgiving, like an ice pick through the flesh. I cursed, stumbled, and almost fell over before I managed to fold myself to the ground to inspect what the hell had happened.

It looked like someone had stapled a busted tree stump to my foot. Long pieces of splintered wood were sticking out of me, and my skin was scratched and torn.The slivers had managed to slide straight into the top of my foot, slicing between the skin and the complex of muscle and bone below. Blood ran through my toes. The situation was bad.

Unfortunately, my intrepidness—a younger man’s cavalier courage—outstripped my preparedness. I didn’t have a first-aid kit on me. I didn’t even have any tweezers. But I did have my Leatherman, and soon I was using the pliers to try to pull the wood out of my foot.

The first and second splinters came out easily enough, and I sighed with relief. The third one took some doing—it was jammed in there pretty good—but I eventually worried it lose. I was working on the last one when the wood split off.A long, flat piece of tree remained buried in my foot.

I wasn’t going any further up the canyon and, with the day wan- ing, I wasn’t going back downstream, either. I would have to pitch camp.

Feeling jittery, I went to the creek to pump some water and gather myself. My second bottle was nearly filled when, looking across the water, I spotted a lovely little meadow amid the cotton- woods. It looked peaceful over there, welcoming. As if drawn by a magnet, I limped across the creek to check it out.

Above the first meadow I found a second clearing, just as green, and above that a third, almost as if the land had been terraced by hand. I spotted an overgrown path at the edge of a mesquite thicket and followed that for a short fifteen yards until I stumbled upon one of the coziest and most inviting campsites I have ever known.

In a small rock hollow there was a flat space tucked beneath the canyon walls. A primitive hearthstone anchored the tiny clearing. Imagine a large, oval boulder, buried to its midpoint and split in half, so that one side was perfectly rounded and the other flat, and that flat side stained black with the soot of a thousand fires. Just below the clearing I discovered a smooth stone pool edged with bunch grasses and cattails and fed by a side stream trickling out of the cliff heights. It was so pretty, so calming, like some kind of elfin outpost. I couldn’t believe my luck.

I hobbled with my gear across the creek and set up my tent. I cleared the fire pit, gathered some wood, put my stove together. It was only a week after the winter solstice, and night came on quickly there in the canyon bottom. As the first stars appeared, I wondered how long people had been coming to this spot.

A long time, I thought.Then I looked at the flame-scorched patina on the fireplace and got the unshakable sense that it had been a very, very long time. Centuries. Maybe millennia.The hair on my arms and neck rose on end. Once this was a peopled wilderness.

The Hohokam and the Salado peoples might once have camped here, and who knows which other tribes in the unrecorded years before that.Almost certainly some members of the Aravaipa band of Apache had slept in that little nook nestled in a Y above two streams. Maybe even Ezkiminzin himself, the last chief of the free Aravaipa, had been here. Maybe he had used the place as a refuge after many of his people were slaughtered at the canyon’s mouth by a Tucson mob in the spring of 1871. Maybe there had once been songs sung here.

For the Apache after whom the canyon was named, this thin patch of forest in the middle of the desert had been an earthly para- dise, their most beloved place. The canyon served as hunting ground, mesquite pod granary, apothecary, mountain shortcut, stronghold, and sacred space.The place was hearth and altar all at once.Which is to say, a sanctuary.

It may sound mystical, or superstitious, but I slept better that night knowing that my camp in the wild had once been someone’s home. I felt comforted by the sense that I was not the first person to have found a haven in the wildeerness.

I got out of the canyon okay, though with my badly swollen foot it was a real pain. It took me at least six hours of scrambling and splashing through the creek to make it out of the wild. When I finally spotted the works of man, I knew I would be all right.

First, electrical lines, strung to an abandoned inn at the mouth of the canyon. Next, my car at the trailhead, the rumble of its engine signaling my return to civilization. Then blacktop and the wonder of motorized speed. And then a cascade of the technologies that make our lives easy: a cell phone tower on a ridge, an old guy in a white cowboy hat scraping the desert bare with the blade of a bull- dozer, the smokestack of the copper smelter in Hayden, surrounded by ziggurats of mine tailings.The scars on the landscape guaranteed that, now back in what we have come to call “the world,” I would be fine, my foot would be fine.

My mishap in Aravaipa Canyon happened a decade ago. I’ve had many other misadventures in the wild since then and have collected many more campfire tales. But the memory has been on my mind a lot lately as I hear rumors that the wildness of the natural world is on the verge of going extinct.

Academics and policy wags at universities and think tanks declare that wilderness no longer matters, if it ever truly existed at all. We are told that we have entered a new epoch of planetary history: the “Anthropocene,” or Age of Man. We are told that the human footprint is too big to leave any place untamed, and that all of Earth is a garden to be cultivated by us.“We must abandon our love affair with the wild . . . for the cold light of the necropsy,” writes one political scientist, who declares that we have come to “the end of the wild.”

Appreciation of wilderness is obsolete in the twenty-first century, according to this way of thinking. Wilderness is irrelevant to our efforts, haphazard though they are, to create an ecologically sustainable society. Our numbers have grown too large for solitude, and our technologies have deleted all the blank spots on the map, with grid lines.We now live, supposedly, in a “post-wild world.”

I don’t know what to think about such bold proclamations. They leave me feeling unsettled, confused.What about the wildness there in Aravaipa Canyon? Wasn’t that real? Isn’t it still important?

My head understands the announcements of the wild’s passing. Wildness does seem an endangered species, or at least a cornered beast, like a mountain lion hounded into a tree. And wilderness, as a place, is a scarce and dwindling resource. The efforts to preserve primitive places are, quite literally, losing ground. For the vast majority of people living in urban and suburban America, the wild is nothing more than legend or myth.

But my heart rebels against the idea of a world without wildness. Is it true that we live on a completely tamed planet? Really? It’s a frightening notion, this vision of a completely gardened Earth.The thought of a “post-wild” world leaves me sad and depressed.

Sure, a world without the wild would have fewer risks and dangers; it would be, by definition, more manageable. But it would make the planet a smaller place, with less beauty and far less magic. In wildness resides mystery—and we need mystery in our lives like we need our daily bread. Mystery nourishes imagination; it is hope’s fuel.

Seems to me (to crib a line from Mark Twain) that the reports of the demise of wildness have been greatly exaggerated. I hear the claims about wild’s death and they appear to be not so much descriptions of fact as expressions of desire—the ancient human wish for convenience and comfort and control. I think of that crazy trip to Aravaipa Canyon and I wonder whether those who have written wilderness’s obituary do not recognize the wild that remains simply because they have not searched for it. The bright lights of our big cities are full of certainties, and wildness is nothing if not a shape- shifter, hard to pin down.Wildness is as sneaky as a coyote: you have to be willing to track it to understand the least thing about it.

But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe wildness has become an anach- ronism in this Human Age, a mere figment of our imaginations. Maybe the last vestiges of wildness are, in fact, about to be snuffed out. If so, what then?

To try to answer that question, I have spent the last few years going deep into the wild—both the wild of the natural world and the wildness within. I’ve trekked through wildlands. I’ve talked with wild men and wild women and tracked wildlife. I’ve eaten wild foods and slept near wild waters. I’ve gone to the ends of the earth.

What I found surprised me—and I think it will surprise you, too.

Oh, and what about the big splinter in my foot? It’s still there. When I got back to Phoenix I went straight to the home of a high school buddy whose fiancé was an MD. She took one look at my massively swollen foot, flinched, and called in an antibiotic prescription to stem the infection. By the time I returned to my home in California, the swelling had gone down, but the splinter was still pinching me horribly. After some x-rays and close examinations, the doctors decided not to try to extract the wood. Too many bones in the foot, they said, and besides, it looked to be healing.
That shard of the world remains stuck beneath my skin.When I touch the top of my foot, I can feel it.The splinter has shrunk by now, much of it absorbed by my body, but it’s apparent—a nubbin of wood and scar tissue, like a pearl.
I like having it there. It’s a reminder of how the wild has made an indelible mark on me.

From Satellites in the High Country by Jason Mark. Copyright © 2015 Jason Mark. Reproduced by permission of Island Press, Washington, D.C. 

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