I can’t believe it’s already mid-February and the New Year is fast underway! Since I didn’t do anything to celebrate my birthday a month ago, I decided to take a solo hike out in the Superstition Mountains on the last day of January.
That morning, I ate a few hardboiled eggs, packed two liters of H20, some sunflower seeds, and a small bag of raisins. I arrived at the trailhead around 10 a.m. and the majority of hikers funneled themselves onto Peralta trail #102, which I was happy to see because my goal was Red Tanks Canyon, about 7 miles in the opposite direction.
Starting off on Dutchman’s trail #104, I quickly caught up to a small group and, as I passed, one of the guys said to me, “You’re the only other person we’ve seen out on this trail.” I replied, “Perfect! That’s the way I like it.”
Of course, I wasn’t the only other person out there. A few more groups trickled in the opposite direction back towards their cars, but I knew I’d have more peace and quiet by the time I reached Coffee Flat trail #108.
From that point, there were still about 4 miles to go before reaching Red Tanks Canyon. I had plenty of time and energy to get out there, but only brought a little bit of food and water. I knew I might not make it all the way to Red Tanks, and I certainly wasn’t prepared to stay the night without camping gear.
At the very least, I was determined to make it to Randolph Canyon to see if there was any water flowing out there. With 2 ½ miles to go, I returned my focus back to the trail and the sound of gravel crunching beneath my feet.
As I approached Randolph canyon, the normally dull hues of the desert seemed a bit brighter and more vibrant. The colors of green and yellow against the bright blue sky reminded me that I hadn’t even thought of using my camera. I quickly snapped the photo above before following my urge to climb one of the old windmills nearby, which was setup to pump water to the local ranchers.
Standing on the shaky old structure, I stopped and listened carefully for the sound of water. It was difficult to decipher whether I heard water or just the rustling leaves of the cottonwood trees, so I slowly clambered back down the sketchy steps of the windmill and followed the trail into the canyon.
Sure enough, there was water flowing! Growing up here in the desert and living through the unbearably hot, dry summers every year, finding fresh running water in the desert is akin to finding treasure. My eyes lit up as I made my feeble attempts to capture with my camera what will only ever be a fraction of mother nature’s beauty.
The contrast of cottonwood trees against a background of cacti, combined with the sight and sounds of flowing water – fleeting and ephemeral before drying and evaporating from the heat of the sun – made the canyon feel surreal. The desert temporarily transformed into a winter oasis.
While I was distracted taking photos, the blue skies dissolved behind a thin layer of clouds that quickly grew larger and darker, until suddenly the entire sky was grey. I was excited by the new weather and the change in lighting it would bring to my photography. But I was also a bit nervous by the idea of getting caught in the rain 6 miles from my car with nothing to keep me or my camera dry.
Of course, that didn’t stop me from moving forward… Why would I turn back now? With only 1 ½ miles left to reach Red Tanks Canyon, I was closer to my destination than I was to civilization. And if the sky was going to break, then that’s just the way it would have to be.
Besides, when there’s water flowing in the desert and I’m out there alone, it feels like my own personal playground. Hopping on boulders, making my way upstream, recognizing old discoveries and finding new ones. I was perpetually drawn forward by my constant curiosity to see what was around the next corner. Then the next corner… And the next…
The red rocks, red stones, and boulders grew more abundant as I made my way upstream. I started to recognize more details and features of the area from the last time I was there (over 10 years ago). Then, all of a sudden I realized that my destination was just right around the corner!
Reaching Red Tanks, there was water flowing all around me. My two liters of drinking water was down to the last two drops. And with a long trail in front of me, and no water filter available, I only had one option…
So, I filled up my water pack from a clear flowing spring. Without question, the water tasted a million times better than Phoenix tap water! But I didn’t want to get sick in case there were any bugs or parasites, so I drank only what I needed to whet my palate.
Sitting down, I saw a small patch of moss with a few blades of grass poking out of the water. It was a curious subject to photograph; a tiny, temporary splash of life that found a home on a small rock nub in such a harsh environment. Soaking in the resources. Fighting the evolutionary fight one rainy season at a time before withering under the sun and returning to hibernation in the dry summers.
And just like that small patch of moss, I too needed food and water to nourish my body. So I shoveled the remainder of my sunflower seeds and raisins into my mouth and washed it down with cold spring water… That hit the spot!
Surrounded by so much diversity, both biological and geological , it was all too easy to lose track of time. When I finally thought to look at my clock it was already almost 3 p.m. With no flashlight and no moon over head, I had just over two hours to hike 7 ½ miles back to my car before dark.
When I realized how soon the sun would set and how far I had to go, I quickly grabbed my gear and hit the ground running. It was no longer simply a day hike with the desire for outdoor exercise, it became a trail running mission driven by the necessity to get back before dark.
I hiked non-stop at full speed for 4 more miles. It began taking a toll on my ankles and knees. By that point I had hiked about 12 miles, with a little less than 3 miles before I’d reach my car. I sorely needed to stop to stretch my legs and catch my breath.
But I kept pushing until I reached the trail marker, where I probably would’ve collapsed anyway if I hadn’t decided to sit down first instead. I took off my shoes to massage the blisters on my toes that were turning to calluses. I wandered around barefoot before lacing up my boots and hitting the trail again.
As I hiked closer to the trailhead, I looked back to see how far I’d gone. I was already reminiscing over the beauty of the desert and the solitude of the canyons, wishing that I could stay all night. But I had to return to civilization. One that I wished were just a bit more civil.
Driving back on the dirt road towards the highway to Phoenix, I watched the clouds change color as the sun set behind the horizon. I contemplated my next journey, what I’m doing with my life, and how to spend more time outdoors. But, enough of all that…
It was getting dark and I was far too tired for deep thoughts and future contemplations. My thoughts quickly faded with the sunset. And with every mile that I drove nearer to the highway, the more my thoughts were consumed by the idea of eating street tacos for dinner, which is exactly what I did.
That night there was a big rain storm. The rain fell sideways down here in the valley and it snowed up north in Flagstaff. I’m glad I made it home safely and didn’t get stuck out there, but the adventure was worth every blistering, solitary step.