Morning sunshine beating down on my head, sweat trickling down between my shoulder blades, clear indicators that desert survival means I brought my water bottle. Hiking boots support my ankles as I pick my way up the path through the broken rocks and mountain shrapnel tumbled onto the Squaw Peak trail. I respect the desert. I call it home. I was born in Phoenix, more than fifty years ago, and I grew up hiking amongst the cacti, sage brush, rocks and lizards. Raised in the desert, I know how lethal forgetting water or getting stranded alone can turn a hike into a death march. I appreciate the fact that hundreds of people make the Squaw Peak pilgrimage, so I can hike alone without being alone.
After moving around the country I returned to Phoenix in poor health. I could barely finish the grocery shopping without sitting down to rest. I craved hiking the desert but didn’t want to tackle a desert trail alone. I learned about the Squaw Peak trail and how many people made this trek and decided I could use this trail to get back into my beloved desert, at my pace.
The first challenge for me was crossing the parking lot. I am highly amused by the people that wait in their idling cars to get a close parking spot when they are there to hike. There are parking spots stretched out for a mile, but everyone wants to park in the first lot. Dodging cars with single hikers, I reach a dry wash just before the head of the trial. Wooden signs remind visitors that the trail is not suitable for dogs, horses or mountain bikes. Looking at the cholla, saguaro, and barrel cactus it doesn’t look like it is suitable for humans either.
I started my climb at a sedate stroll with more determination than energy. People take up the challenge for a thousand reasons; for me, if I could make it to the top, I would be getting healthier. The first day, I never made it to the first quarter-mile marker. I rested against a rocky outcropping at a bend in the path. I felt discouraged that the mountain so easily defeated me.
The following week, with more determination than sense, I again tackled the rocky trail. I started to pay attention to the cholla condominium next to the trail. I am amazed that some intrepid bird built right next to the path in the middle of the spikes of the cholla. The nest is certainly safe from humans, since no one would reach their hand into that menacing environment. Further along the trail, I notice a manmade retaining wall about knee high. I am curious about why it is there, amongst the rugged rocks. Years later, I discovered that the little wall kept the mountain from washing across the path and creating a mini flash flood during the rain. In Phoenix, rarely encountered rain wreaks havoc on the exposed trail. I focus on the ground as I pick my way up the uneven steps and loose rocks. I watch powder puffs of dust poof out from under my feet. The dust settles across my shoes, spreading the grayness of the trail over my shoes and pant legs. This time, I make it past the quarter mile mark and a good ways to the half-mile marker before my legs feel like ten-ton appendages. I retreat back down, planning to attack the mountain again, the following week.
O-dark hundred, the sun only shows an eerie glow on the horizon. I hop on the freeway and head up the Squaw Peak spur. I then swing off at Lincoln Avenue, and slow back down to city street speeds. At the second light, I turn left into a residential area that skirts the Phoenix Mountain Park. The speed limit drops to 15 miles per hour after the last house. I feel like I am creeping at a snail’s pace after the hectic freeway speeds. Signs warn of extreme fire hazard and no open flames; consequently, cigarettes must be extinguished inside their cars. I am happy to have an outdoor no-smoking zone. By the time I reach the first parking lot it is full. I don’t mind driving to the second parking lot closer to the restroom area. Cars sprinkle this area, too. I pick my spot, grab my water bottle, and hit the trail.
I have never seen the dry wash run with water. I do know that dry washes can be deadly, even if the rain is miles away. The rain water in the desert gathers momentum quickly and skitters down these freeway washes. Up the steps, out of the wash, I tackle the trail again. The bottom part becomes more familiar with each trek. The sun is hiding behind the other mountains close to Squaw Peak. The blue sky dome of light brightens from the hidden sun. By the first curve in the switchbacks, the sun peeps out, promising a scorching heat by noon.
I take my time, picking my way up each switchback. Every turn takes me up higher and slowly around the mountain. The shrubs poke their spindly arms out into the pathway. Scrawny and brittle, I brush easily past them. I keep my eye out for intruding cholla. Vicious hooks on the ends of each needle are designed to hook onto passing critters, to take the pod to a new location. Occasionally, walking along the top of the short retaining wall proved easier than the steps that go up two feet at a time. Boulders provide a spot of shade to rest behind. The sun creeps above the opposing mountains and shines relentlessly on the exposed path. Twisting around the shoulder of the mountain, I am once again shaded by the mountain. I pass the quarter-mile marker, the bench at a third of a mile, and finally reach the bench that sits in the shade of the mountain at the half-mile marker. I rest awhile, swinging my feet while a pleasant breeze scoots over the saddle of the mountain. This is the dividing point. One path does a circuitous route around the base of Squaw Peak and the steeper path heads for the summit. I am heading for the summit.
Determination, more than strength, drives me to continue up the steep path. Only half way up and already civilization takes on doll-like proportions. The mountain drops off to the right, giving me a view of the parking lot full of matchbox cars. I am struggling to keep going. Each new step seems like the last leg of a marathon. I need a distraction. Every hiker passes me. I am so slow. One hiker passes but doesn’t leave me in the dust. He seems to be going at a steady pace. I focus on his back and pretend that I am attached by a rope to the other hiker. The guy doesn’t know of the mental games I am playing to keep myself going. The back side of the mountain is cooler, with an updraft, and I wonder where this cool air comes from. I keep my eyes on the hiker in front of me. I have never gotten this far up the mountain before. Each step seems to be an agony. I don’t care. I am determined to make the summit. At the mile-mark, I am hit full force by the sun again as I top the edge of the mountain. I collapse onto another bench. The other hiker rests, too. I can see his face, for the first time. He looks pleasant. I don’t ask his name. It doesn’t matter. He just helped me get another quarter-mile up the path.
I realize I am just a quarter mile from the top. Adrenaline pushes me back onto my feet. The last part is mostly in the sun. Sweat covers my forehead and the wetness feels good, my own personal swamp cooler. As long as I am sweating, I am OK.
The top of the mountain is playing hide-and-go-seek behind the boulders and rocks that impede the path. I encounter a sharp incline up a rock. A handrail is the only means for pulling me up the rock face. Ten years later, the rock is replaced by stone steps and the handrail removed. I struggle up more rocks. The final stretch is steep and treacherous, but the summit is in view. I hoist myself up the last little bit and perch on top, with the sun beating down on me. Crumpling on rocks that feel like the softest cushions in a ritzy, hotel lobby, I rest my exhausted body. It feels so good to be on top of my world. I look down the mountain sides. Ranks of saguaros spread out in every direction. Ocotillos sway in the breezes. I am aware that I am not alone at the top. The chatter around me is more like a party than the end of a brutal climb overlooking the freeway to downtown Phoenix.
The next four years, I tread my self-appointed pilgrimage, almost every weekend. I was thrilled as I progressed to not only once up to the summit, but I actually started doing it twice in a day. I watch the seasons pass, from the dusty grays and browns of summer to the dustier grays of winter, followed by an amazing riot of color each spring. I changed jobs but not climbing the mountain.
I start to have trouble climbing the mountain. I figured it was just fatigue from working a more demanding job. September 11, 2001 stands clear and ominous in most people’s minds. The reports of crashing planes barely infringed on my depression. I stare at the computer monitors in the photo lab; the images repeated over and over. My mind doesn’t seem to grasp that I am watching people die. The grayness in my mind doesn’t lift. The week before 9/11, I was diagnosed with cancer. My world rocked. I stared numbly as iron and concrete buildings collapsed. None of the chaos in New York broke through the fog in my mind. The following Saturday, I retreated to my desert to climb.
I was too tired to attempt the summit. The tiredness wasn’t from the cancer but from the depression brought on by the word. I didn’t know a single word could create such a level of despair that the first time I uttered the words, “I have cancer,” I passed out. I was only forty-four years old. I was already scheduled for surgery, in less than a month. My mind was reeling. Thankfully I switched to automatic pilot to trudge up the mountain. I pondered on the tragedy of planes crashing in three different locations in one morning; so many suffered terrible losses. Families ripped apart, in a matter of moments. I am despairing over surgery with a 98% chance of recovery. The cholla seems more ominous than usual. The mountain seems to grow with every step. The bleak landscape seems like a suitable environment to ponder the deaths of so many, and the fear I feel about having cancer. My world was shifting; only the rocks beneath my feet seem solid. My mind and body ache as I trudge, one foot in front of the other. I know I won’t make the summit. I don’t want to stop at the bench at the mile marker in the sun. I want to find a shaded retreat to sort out all that happened in one week.
I climbed past the three-quarter marker to the shady side of the mountain. I noticed a flat boulder large enough for me to sit on and look out over Phoenix, with its own mini skyscrapers. Sitting there on the rock, I was face to face with the most battered saguaro I had ever seen. Two thirds of it had hundreds of bullet holes and dings where people had used it for target practice with guns and rocks. I could see the rocks still stuck in the cactus. It was still green and still growing. I sat and stared at the scars on the cactus. “What is wrong with me? The cancer was caught early enough that I only need surgery. No chemo, no radiation. I am going to survive.” Then my heart broke for the thousands whose lives ended in an hour of terror. I sat for a long time. I thanked Heavenly Father for having the scarred cactus teach me that having scars doesn’t alter who I am. Having cancer was only temporary. I would survive. Thousands of others did not. In the desert, there is a toughness that I have never found anywhere else I have lived. In the desert, there is survival.