AZT 8: Wanderlust …because I am an Animal. (Flagstaff to Stateline)

It’s always difficult for me to write the final blogpost for a thru-hike. There always seems to be a big push near the end of a hike that leaves me with little time to look over my photos and reflect upon the miles that have passed. Instead, nearing the end of a long hike, everything takes on a surreal outline and then quickly passes from my thoughts as I anticipate the finish and ponder what all these miles have meant to me. And, as always, I wonder “why do I keep walking”? There are so many answers to that question. But this time, my thoughts took on more of a biological pondering… It’s not just me that walks great distances. Humans have always walked, and often walked far, that is, before the days of agriculture. Even today animals travel great distances across vast landscapes, oceans, and skyways. But why? These days, at least for humans, we call it wanderlust.

Some accuse it of being a modern phenomenon, but I believe it has a direct link to our primal roots, when wandering was a necessity. It was necessary for food, water, and either warm or cool weather. Wandering is an evolutionary adaptation for survival. Animals climb mountains, swim oceans, and cross vast countrysides just as their ancestors have done. Today, we call this wanderlust… But even as I hike for pleasure, I can feel the deep propulsion of my wanderings guided by my search for the next water, what food may lie in the next town, and a safe and pretty place to sleep. Truly, I am just an animal.  And that is the deep pleasure of hiking long distances away from the daily pressures of a modern societal life.

We left Flagstaff midday. The last ~couple hundred miles of the trail ahead of us had very little water. So our destination for the day was even more punctuated by, “how many miles to the next water source?” We fell a little short on mileage the first afternoon, wondering, “how much water do I need for twenty-five miles, anyway?” When we arrived at the water source the next morning I collected four and a half liters of water. The morning was cold, 36 deg F at nine thousand feet with moisture in the air. Part way through the morning, as the day warmed, Neon decided to dump out one of his liters of water. I had hardly eaten during this cold morning. I was still carrying a lot of water and the miles were passing very quickly. I guzzled a liter of my water and then quickly became hungry. It’s all a cycle, I thought.

Again we fell a few miles short of the next water source by the end of the day. I still had two liters of water. “So… How much water do I need for thirty-five miles? It has been cool during the day, but we’re about to descend two-thousand feet in elevation. There’s hardly any climbs. The miles have mostly been pretty flat.” When we arrived at the water source the next morning, a leaky pipe, I decided to only collect three liters of water. Three liters for thirty-five miles; this is more than a day of hiking for us, especially since it’s already mid-morning.

We pressed on. The winds picked up. The clouds began rolling in. The miles passed quickly. The clouds got dark. The air got colder. Neon put on his rain gear. I kept walking. And then, drop, drop, drop, more wind… I hurried to a nearby juniper for shelter and put on my rain gear. I saw Animal in the trail putting on his rain gear. We kept walking. We smiled as the weather got exciting. Then it started hailing. More smiles, but it was getting colder. I looked back at Neon; He was holding the hood on his jacket to try to keep the hail from hitting his face. The hail turned to snow, and with the fierce wind, it was coming in sideways, completely horizontal, now wet snow. I looked back and Animal was gone. I kept walking to where the junipers got thicker. We stopped and set up the tent. It was one o’clock in the afternoon. We had hiked sixteen miles. We had only collected three liters of water for thirty-five miles. And now we were camped for the day. Warm inside the tent, with an occasional left over shiver from deep inside my cold cells, I wondered how this was going to work. But for now, we were warm and dry and had everything we needed. We toasted with some Jäger to a good day walked…

Having set up camp so early in the afternoon we woke especially early the next day and were walking before five a.m. It was cold and foggy, but as the morning got later we could see the sunshine peeking through from beneath the cloud layer. We looked at the map and took a shortcut to save a couple of miles. I still had water when I arrived at our next water source. I was sure I had not been drinking enough, but with the cold weather I just couldn’t force myself to drink. The sun finally started to warm the day as we got closer to the Grand Canyon south rim. We arrived at the south rim village smelly and wide-eyed like wild animals. There were SOoo many people! We got on a bus full of people. I felt like I’d just wandered out of the woods for the first time in my life after having been raised by a pack of wolves. There were so many eyes. Were they looking at me or was I looking at them? We took the bus to the dining hall. I stood in line, with my eyes wide, anticipating a hot breakfast like a little girl about to taste her first ice cream cone. It was such a weird scene. After eating we got back on the bus and took it to camper’s services where we showered and washed our clothes. The sun was warm. We laid in the grass waiting for our clothes to dry.

As we began our hike across the canyon I could already feel myself letting go of this, “this” being that place I reach in a hike that feels like home; my ancestral home, when I am still the animal, part of the earth and the sky and the wind. I could already feel it slipping away. Maybe it was all the people, but we were close to the finish and I was already thinking about all the stuff I wanted to do when I got back home.

We hiked into the night and the inner canyon came alive with sounds. The frogs echoed through the canyon and guided me on my way. Occasionally I heard a bizarre screech. The canyon frogs appeared on the path, so small, and yet commanded their space, seeming larger than myself. We saw a gecko. I basked in the sounds, slipping back, for a moment, into my animal self that knows the earth.

We arrived at the north rim exhausted. Back in the woods on the Kaibab Plateau it was all about finishing this trail before the next storm rolled in and time was ticking. Miles passed. Water sources blurred. I was no longer worried about how far it was to the next water. There was little water, but plenty enough through this cool weather. Occasionally we found small water caches near a road crossing. The pine forest turned to juniper and then sage. The earth beneath the sage turned red. Spring wildflowers lined the path. Bushes bloomed. And red hills came into view. We were approaching the finish. The finish? But what will my days be punctuated by if not the next water? The next food? The next place to sleep? Wanderlust…

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…stay tuned for more posts. I have new paintings underway in the studio and later in July we’re headed to Italy for our 10th anniversary. The mountains in Italy are beautiful and I’m sure will inspire much to write about and photograph.

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