Black Canyon Trail
December 31, 2018
Going with the flow has been a consistent theme amongst my outdoor adventures. The unpredictability of nature keeps me on my toes and challenges my problem solving skills and my ability to shift my perspective when necessary to remain positive and keep on trekking.
New day, new year, new trail.
We were looking forward to starting the Black Canyon Trail, a single track trail which spans roughly 77 miles north/south from Pheonix, AZ to Prescott National Forest. This prehistoric trail sits in the foothills of the Bradshaw Mountains. This is a desert trail with little refuge from the sun, therefore making winter an ideal time to hike. During the winter months the temperature at night can drop below freezing but daytime temperatures average around 60-70 degrees.
Cosmo and I decided to do this trail on a whim. We just finished hiking The San Diego Trans Country Trail (Sea 2 Sea) and had a week left before either of us needed to be back at work. We did all of our planning over the length of a dinner meal at a quiet Mexican restaurant in a small town along the California/Mexico border. Our initial plan seemed simple. We would drive to the northern end of the Black Canyon Trail, park the car, and hitch-hike to the southern terminus to begin our week long trek.
As we got close to Prescott National Forest, and the northern end of the trailhead, our plan was thwarted by a snow storm that came in quick causing roads to close and making the northern terminus inaccessible. We were an hour away from our destination when we were forced to re-evaluate. We drove to a middle point of the Black Canyon Trail at Big Bug Trailhead to spend the night; in the morning, we would begin our hike from the south to allow snow to melt in the north. The sun had fallen by the time we arrived, the road was icy, and the gravel parking lot was hidden underneath several inches of snow.
Day 1 | January 1, 2019
I wiped the sleep from my eyes and the condensation from my foggy car window. The parking lot ground was covered by a white blanket of thick snow, and peering out a little further I saw William, still tirelessly attempting to dig his truck out of the snow.
We met William last night (near midnight on this New Year’s Eve), after his truck slid into a ditch as he tried to leave the parking lot. William spent most of the frigid night trying to dig his tire out. Cosmo had dug with him and helped him contact a tow truck, who later showed up only to say that the conditions were too dangerous to try and tow his truck out of the ditch.
By morning it took a few more hours for William’s truck to be freed. The unexpected snow storm brought a number of challenges to our spontaneous plan, and to William’s as well. But that’s all part of the adventure, right?
We were optimistic that the snow was not covering the entire trail, but we weren’t sure how far south we would need to travel to find hike-able conditions.
My trusty little Mazda 3 made it up the icy ramp out of the parking lot, and back to the freeway. Our predictions seemed to be right. The closer we got to Phoenix the less snow we saw in the surrounding area. We parked the car at Emery Trailhead ( 7 miles north of the official start), packed our bags, and hit the trail by 2pm.
After hours of beautiful desert trail, we watched the sunset as we switched back and forth along the single track trail in search of a campsite.
We had only been hiking for a few hours but I was in the zone. I was hiking at a good rhythm, lost in mind and ecstatic to be at the start of a journey.
Suddenly, I was brought out of my mind and into the present moment by the startling sound of a bullet whizzing by behind me. There were several shooting ranges nearby and the sound of guns in the distance had become normal, but we never worried that they would get close to us until now. I stopped for a moment in disbelief - it must have been something else. The wind had started to pick up so maybe it was something else that got swept up in a gust? I turned around and saw Cosmo hovered down on the trail staring back at me with wide eyes and mouth slightly ajar.
“Were those f$#@ing bullets?!” We were now both hovered down communicating like we were hiding out in a war zone. I crab-walked along the trail to a corner that was protected by shrubs where I felt safe.
“What the heck just happened?!” I answered back to Cosmo. “Those weren’t bullets were they?”
“Those were bullets!” Cosmo said with shock. “There were two shots!”
I stayed in a squat and took little steps down the trail. Once I turned a corner I gained the confidence to stand back up, despite the sounds of gunshots that never ceased their cracking in the distance all around us.
We found a camp spot a few miles south of Table Mesa Trailhead - we were tucked behind a few big boulders where we felt safe. I hoped that the gun sounds would fade away with the setting sun and for a short while there was some peace and quiet.
Day 2 | January 2, 2019
Frigid winds blew through the tent all night and the cold kept me awake. I was no longer afraid of the people carelessly going nuts at the nearby shooting ranges. When I heard the guns back at it early in the morning I felt annoyed. How could people be so reckless and irresponsible?! I wanted to make sure the incident was reported and that future hikes would be safe. I dialed the number for the Bureau of Land Management, the branch of government that oversees the area. When nobody answered the phone I remembered that we are amidst a government shutdown and nobody will answer my call.
Frustrated with American democracy, I grumpily headed out on the trail.
It was a frozen morning, and I was layered up with every ounce of clothing I owned.
Within a few hours, my mood had improved drastically, thanks to the warmth of the sun and the diminishing of the gun shots as we increased our distance.
The recent rain fall filled the nearby riverbeds, creating unexpected river crossings and welcomed water sources.
After a full day, we set up next to the Agua Fria River and watched the water as we ate our dinner.
Day 3 | January 3rd, 2019
I hiked along smooth single track that skirted the mountainside and watched as the sun slowly began to rise in a cloudless sky — lifting the cold, dark curtain of night to reveal the magnificent colors of the desert canyon.
I followed the trail around a corner and found the sun beaming down like a spotlight against a sandy desert stage. I paused for a moment and stepped into the light. I straightened my spine, rotated my shoulders, and lifted my heart towards the sky, feeling myself open like the petals of a flower, fully receptive to the the sun’s warmth and energy.
In my newly awakened state I continue to follow the twists and turns of the trail accompanied only by the crunch of gravel under my shoe and the evenly matched rhythm of my breath flowing in and out of my lungs. Inhale...2, 3, 4. Exhale...2, 3, 4. I feel myself mentally arriving into nature and synching up with her slow, sustainable pace. The calmness of my breath reflects the calmness I feel inside my body. I am content.
Bushels of Buckhorn Cholla and Pancake Prickly Pear Cactus lined the trail with 1-2 inch, needle sharp thorns reaching out in the direction of my legs — one of the many ways the desert reminds us to stay present and aware.
The Saguaro Cactus is a defining feature in the Sonoran Desert and along the Black Canyon Trail. Cosmo and I search for shapes in the saguaros. They stand tall and speckle the landscape around us. Some we saw as simple while others take on magnificent designs and resemble ancient deities with branches connected in a psychedelic spiral of arms.
Eventually I caught up to Cosmo who I found seated and basking. Knees bent, chin slightly lifted to the sun and book in hand.
We continued along a dirt road stopping periodically to appreciate the beautiful mountains that surrounded us.
Day 4 | January 4th , 2019
There was a chill in the air and patches of snow on the ground in the morning when I woke. The ground at night becomes a frozen rock, and Cosmo lays our extra clothes under his sleeping bag to create some sort of barrier for warmth.
We made it back to the Big Bug Trailhead, in the parking lot of which we had spent our first night, and although there were still patches of snow, most of what we experienced four days earlier had melted.
We were almost out of water and desperately in need of coffee when the trail rejoined the Agua Fria River. We were happy to see that it was flowing.
As I got closer to the finish, I felt myself slowing down. I walked slower to savor the moment.
Within the simplicity of of trail life, the mind is afforded a freedom to flow. On the trail I have easier access to my own creativity. Conversations are enriched. I connect more deeply to the people around me and I connect more deeply with myself.
I looked up and saw Cosmo sitting on a dirt road just a half mile from the end of trail.
There was no Black Canyon Trail sign to officially let us know that we were done. We used our maps to estimate a spot along a dirt road that we thought would be the official end. We assumed we would find a parking lot, or a dirt road turn-off with cars and other hikers, and from there we would presumably hitch back to my car at the start of the trail. There was no one here. There were no cars, no signs of other hikers, and the main highway, though visible, looked very, very far away.
I looked at the map and calculated that we were about 10 miles from the nearest main road. I laughed to myself as I thought about my slowed pace just moments earlier. My wishes came true, the hike will go on! We made the most of the situation, choosing to enjoy several more hours of bonus miles.
We traveled along dirt roads on the outskirts of small farms and dispersed backcountry communities. It was dark by the time we made it to the highway and the conditions were not safe for hitching a ride. We ate what little food we had and found a small flat spot behind a fence tucked in by desert scrub to contentedly set up for the evening.
Day 5 | January 5th, 2019
It took three hitches to get back to the official start of the Black Canyon Trail.
Hitch #1 brought us to the town of Dewey
Hitch #2 took us to Cortez Lakes where we stopped at the 50’s Diner to fuel up.
Hitch #3 got us the rest of the way back to the appropriately named Carefree Highway. The car was parked at Emery Trailhead, seven miles north of where we were dropped off. We had a small stretch at the start of the Black Canyon Trail to make up before we could officially say we completed our hike.
It was much warmer hiking the southern portion of the trail. As we hiked we were mesmerized by the variety of plants and surprising colors that filled this desert.
To contrast with the beautiful nature area we were immersed in, there remained an apocalyptic haze with cloudy skies, buzzing power lines, and constant “pow, pow, pow!” From the nearby shooting range. I accepted the distractions around me (accepted that there will always be distractions around me) and I chose to practice staying present on my path. There was so much happening in that moment, in every moment, if we open our eyes to it. I marveled in the miraculousness of the desert plants which lined the trail. I soaked in feelings of gratitude for the privilege of being in this moment, this experience, and in a body that has been strong enough to get me to the end of the trail.
Later that night we checked into a hotel just outside of Joshua Tree National Park. I stood in the shower and watched dirt fall from my skin and swirl down the drain with soapy water. Somewhere underneath a week’s worth of dirt was my body. I lifted my arm and was surprised at the thick black stubble that had sprouted in my arm pit. For the past week my body has been a powerful machine allowing me to climb mountains and travel great distances. Without a mirror, or the influence of my phone, I haven’t thought about aesthetics. At home, shaving is a mindless part of my everyday routine. How different my body looks when that routine becomes tossed away. I thought about how much time and effort I spend putting my self worth into superficial characteristics and how liberated I feel when I’m backpacking and these things are no longer important! It’s not that I was trying to protest, or make a stand, by not shaving on trail — it just didn’t cross my mind. It was no longer important.
As I stepped out of the shower I glanced in the steamy mirror and looked at my face as though it was a stranger’s. Normally, I see my reflection daily and unconsciously judge myself based on what I see and how I interpret what I see in my mind. It’s so easy to let our own visual distortions control our self-esteem and self worth. For the past five days I haven’t looked in a mirror. The only image I I saw of myself on trail was the one that was reflected by my partner. Thankfully, as a good partner should, seeing myself through Cosmo’s eyes reflected a higher version of myself, certainly greater than I can see in a mirror.
BONUS DAY | January 6, 2019
To ease the entry to our alternate, urban reality, we spent the day in the backcountry of Joshua Tree National Park. The setting sun of late afternoon brought a calm glow to the otherworldly hills, and we walked the last mile to the car, grateful for the journey.