AZT 6: Naked from the Waist Down… A Metaphor for Life? (Picket Post to Sunflower)

We’re in a hotel in Payson, taking a zero day (zero hiking miles). It’s 3:30 in the afternoon and I’ve spent the entire day sleeping between eating sessions. I want to tell you about the last ~90 miles of trail we hiked, the water, the other thru-hikers, and how incredibly rocky and steep so much of the trail was …but all that comes to mind is “naked from the waist down”, when I found myself standing in the middle of the trail with my bottom naked, bent over, picking prickly pear cactus thorns out of my bum. It was amusing; not the tiny thorns, those were itchy and irritating, but standing half-naked with my butt in the air on the side of a cliff, hoping no one walks up, that was amusing. It just seemed like a metaphor for life. Exposed, vulnerable, and working to remove a mess of thorns from my ass, I’ve thought about that for days now. The situation was so immediate, and in desperate need of taking care of, that all my inhibitions just flew out the window. Suddenly, it was only about me in that moment. This was important to me, getting those thorns out, and I cared very little about being seen.

To start at the beginning… we had left the Picket Post trailhead in search of water. We had seventeen miles to the next reliable water source. There is always a little anxiety between long water stretches: did I pack enough water to make it that far, what if it’s really hot and I drink too much too fast, or what if the next water source turns out to be dry? Everyone begins to feel a little vulnerable. I looked at the map and decided to continue hiking up the creek bed that the trail had been crisscrossing over for the last several miles. The trail turned and went back up into the hot hills, but I could see on the map that the trail met back up with the creek bed in a few miles. Neon and Wolverine decided to take this route as well. The others took the trail into the hills. After a mile or so the creek bed turned into a road and a working windmill came into view. Wolverine got more water. A little while later we met back up with the trail.

We climbed 2000 feet to the top of a ridge just before sunset. Liz, 2pac, Neon, and I camped on the ridge. Wolverine and Animal continued hiking to find a better spot and to get closer to the water. We hiked a couple miles the next morning and found Wolverine, Animal, Nick, and Geaux Geaux Girl camped in a wash near the water. “Did you find the water,” I asked. I heard someone say, “Yeah, it’s up that creek bed, but it’s not very good.” “That doesn’t sound right,” I hollered back, “that’s not where it is on the map.” 2pac, Liz, and Neon decided to investigate the little creek bed with the “not very good” water. I continued down the trail to find the water source shown on the map. I started to doubt my decision just as I came upon a trail junction. Maybe this will take me there. I started up the slightly over-grown trail, wondering again if I’d made a poor decision. Why wasn’t anyone else looking for the water source that named the trailhead for this passage, Roger’s Trough. I can see it here on the map. Maybe it doesn’t exist. I kept walking through the stickery bushes. More doubts flooded my thoughts just as an old fence came into view. That looks promising, I thought. As I approached the fence I saw an old cement trough. Jackpot! I walked toward the trough and saw a lot of tall plants growing in it, but no water. And then I saw the pipe with beautiful, clear, water pouring out of it. “Hey, beautiful water,” I shouted. But no one could hear me. I had walked a 1/4 mile down the trail and another 1/4 mile up from the trail junction. No one had followed. So often I feel like I’m storming my own path, which is as it should be, but still leads me to question my decisions much of the time. But here I was, alone, with beautiful, clear water. I filled every bottle I had, not even looking how far it was to the next water. I’m going to sit here and drink until I’m fully saturated, then I’ll see how much I need to make it to the next water. I filled six liters, treated them with my Steripen, made chia seed, ramen, another cup of coffee, a cup of emergenC drink, and enjoyed every drop of the beautiful spring water. I was still the only one here. After about a half an hour, I heard Neon calling my name. I called back. Eventually everyone came to the water. Apparently Liz, low on water, had had a minor breakdown when she heard about the “not very good” water. Liz and 2pac took a long break at this water, thanking me for finding it. I headed down the trail feeling funny, thinking, “But I didn’t find it. It was right there on the map. It even had an old USGS marker on the trough.”

I bounced down the trail with more water than I needed, but so happy to have it. I put in the head phones and by the time we reached Reavis Pass I was chirping about going dancing when we got to Flagstaff. There was talk of finding the Reavis Saddle Spring that was marked “couldn’t find it” on the water report. I chimed in, but the spring isn’t at the saddle, we’ll pass it on our way down. Animal said, it’s 2/10th’s of a mile down. I had a second cup of coffee and anticipated seeing the old apple orchard at Reavis Ranch.

I grew up around apple trees in the Pacific Northwest and was excited that we would hike by an old apple orchard in Arizona. I wondered if they’d be blossoming. I love apple blossoms, so delicate and perfect. Somehow, apple trees represent the roots of good food that has been lost in the now industrialized processed foodscape of America. When I was a little girl, four years old, I’d wander up the hillside behind our house to visit a patch of overgrown green apple trees. At four, I was mountaineering for apples, real apples, the kind that give you that starchy, sweet, sour crunch, causing you to pucker your lips just a bit right before the smile of satisfaction stretches across your face. They’re not shiny. They have a little black spot or two and perhaps a worm hole or two. It’s a taste you will never forget. And I never have forgotten. Growing up, everyone had fruit trees and a little kitchen garden. I feel so blessed to have had that in my childhood. As I got older I saw people cut down the apple trees in their yard, saying ” they just make a mess.” I’ve never understood that. I feel sad for those lost apple trees.

We hiked down from Reavis Pass/Saddle. I pointed to the pool of water as we passed the Reavis Saddle Spring. The miles passed easily as we descended to Reavis Creek. I was still thinking about finding the apple trees when I was stopped dead in my tracks by the largest Alligator Juniper I have ever seen. It was enormous. I could stretch my arms straight out and still not reach its edges. I felt happy and sad in its presence. What was its history? What stories could it share… And where were the others like it? I stayed there for several minutes before heading on my way. I forgot about the apple trees and began thinking of all the old, glorious, trees I have met in my wanderings, and the too-many-to-count old large stumps that I have seen. Forests I will know know! Old forests that I have always been sad to have not known. A world I will never know, full giant trees, has brought me to my knees in sadness on numerous occasions.

I made it to the old Reavis Ranch site, but saw no apple orchard. Neon, 2pac, and Liz came behind me. I said, “I can’t find the apple trees.” Neon pointed at a blooming bush. “That’s not an apple tree,” I said. “I’ve seen old overgrown apple trees and that’s not an apple tree.” I was disappointed. Neon didn’t understand. I needed to see those apple trees. Liz and 2pac made dinner and Neon and I headed out. We decided to take the lower trail through the pasture back to the trail. Part way back to the trail I hollered ahead to Neon, “Hey, we found the orchard! Old apple trees! And they’re blooming.” Neon kept walking. I stopped and said hello, took pictures of some of the blossoms, and thanked the apple trees for their time.

We turned and climbed out of the Reavis Creek canyon. Neon yelled up at me and pointed back at the apple trees, “apple trees,” he hollered. Maybe he did understood a little. The trail got rocky, so very rocky. I trotted on for a while before getting upset about the rocky, ankle-twisting trail. I started to slow down. It was consuming all of my concentration to walk this rocky path. We arrived at Walnut Spring, got water, and were about to continue on when we came upon the sweetest camping area. It was still early, but the spot was sweet and we were exhausted. We all decided it was too sweet to not camp.

Neon and I got an early start the next day, knowing that it was supposed to be even more exhausting with more rocky, steep trail. We descended, steeply, on thin trail and then immediately began climbing again. There was no top. I was getting hungry. Another switchback, and another, and still no top. I stopped for a small snack. I couldn’t see Neon anymore. Finally I got to the ridge top. There was a beautiful place for second breakfast, but Neon wasn’t there. I continued on, wondering if he’d already stopped to eat. After a little while he came into view sitting on a slope of rocky trail. “Eesh! That’s a terrible place for second breakfast,” I said. By this time I was grumpy. I saw a flat spot just down the ridge and decided to go there. I ate alone. Everyone passed. I sat there for a long time eating, trying to regain my rhythm. A couple of miles later, I was deep in thought, when my foot slipped and a prickly pear so graciously caught me. I bounced right back up, took two steps and wowie! Whoah! Lots and lots of thorns pushing and pulling against my skirt and shorts, wiggling deeper into my flesh. There wasn’t any place to stop. I was cliffside surrounded by prickly pear everywhere. I had to walk another twenty feet to get to a clear spot in the trail. This is sure awkward, I thought. I took off my pack and tried twisting around to get the thorns. Nope! Not gonna work. I looked around, I couldn’t see anyone. I took off my skirt and then my shorts. This is definitely awkward, standing naked from the waist down in the middle of the trail. I started picking out the thorns, somewhat amused and somewhat irritated by the tiny little things. I looked around occasionally. I stood there, half naked, for nearly twenty minutes picky tiny hair-like thorns out of my butt cheeks. After the first few minutes I was much more amused and it all felt much less awkward. I didn’t even care anymore if anyone walked up. My thoughts drifted to all the things we keep secret, special memories that no one understands, memories and moments that make us feel vulnerable and exposed. I looked back at the prickly pear that had caught my fall and said, “Thank you. I needed that. I needed to feel comfortable with myself, my rhythm, my memories. Thank you for reminding me.”

After a few hours I found Neon waiting for me under a tree. The guys had rushed ahead to try to make it to the Roosevelt Lake Marina, to pick up their resupply boxes, before the store closed. The trail continued up, down, and over even more rocky, steep trail. We were getting worn out. We finally made it to Roosevelt Lake a little before sunset. Another fifteen mile day that felt like twenty-five. Animal, having arrived before the store closed, had bought beer and soda for everyone, a nice treat after that raggedly, rocky, steep trail day. We camped in the bushes close to the lake.

The next day we all walked the road a couple of miles to the start of the next section. I think we had all been somewhat traumatized by the previous day’s rocky trail and not a one of us wanted to go back to where we had left the trail to get to the lake. The day promised five-thousand feet of climbing with one water source that we hoped would not be dry. Up, up, and up we climbed for nearly ten miles before descending to Buckhorn Creek. I couldn’t see any water in it as we descended. No water at the trail crossing, we headed upstream and then downstream. We found a tiny trickle into a small pool of mostly clear water. Six of us gathered round, collected water, and ate. Water sources, fire, and music. “This is where people gathered before TV,” I thought. After more up and then a lot of traversing, the Four Peaks came into view. We found a cozy little place to camp at an inside turn in the trail. The next day we all met up at the next water source, and the next. A long section of road-walking promised better miles for the day. We descended to Boulder Creek and camped. The last seven miles before the highway went quickly, the hitch to town took some time, but then we were magically transported to the land of food, showers, and beds. The bed I found myself lying in all day thinking about the gift a prickly pear had given me …and wondering if I’d remember it the next time I need it most.

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