Above: The high desert of northern Arizona. Photos courtesy of Jonathan Malone.
By Jonathan Malone
It was hot, it was dry, and I was afraid that I was running out of water. I had been hiking through the high plateau desert in Arizona for three days and I had seen only a handful of people, lots of cows, and a few horses. I had heard elk and coyotes, but had not yet seen any of them. I was deep in the wilderness, there were few people, and my water supply was worrisome.
I chose to be in this place.
In September I backpacked for approximately 100 miles of the wilderness of Arizona. Hiking and backpacking are things I love to do, and I have gone on many solo and group trips in the Adirondack Mountains in New York and the White Mountains in New Hampshire as well as other areas of the Northeast. I love taking time to be in the forest, by the streams and lakes, and surrounded by the mountains. This year I opted for something completely new to me; I decided to hike one small portion of the 800-mile Arizona trail. I started just north of Flagstaff and headed to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. This meant I would be ending my hike going from the South rim to the North rim of the Canyon. I was intrigued with the new and different challenges of the Arizona wilderness – the different terrain and wildlife I had not experienced in my time in the Northeast, including the Grand Canyon.
I was alone. Perhaps not surprisingly, I have found that hiking solo is different from hiking with people. When I am with others I worry about them, about how they are doing, about their experience, and I put my own experience and comfort behind the person that I am hiking with. Yet when I am solo, I have only myself to think about and worry about. This also means that I do not have anyone else to lean on for help, for making good decisions, and for company. Solo hiking does not always mean hiking alone, but it can.
When hiking solo, you can still meet people, have conversations, and gain new friendships. During this trip I met a young man who was biking across the country, and we shared a pizza along with great conversation. I met a couple from Kansas who were spending a number of days in the Grand Canyon, taking their time to enjoy the glory of that park. It was wonderful to meet these people and to share conversation. Yet the majority of this trip of solo hiking was spent alone. I saw a few people hiking the opposite direction (I was going north and they were going south), but every night I was alone.
It was a different wilderness experience than I have ever experienced. I found that there were times when I missed the canopy of trees that one finds when wandering through many of the Audubon trails here in Rhode Island and elsewhere on the East Coast. During my Arizona hike the sun got hot during the day and shade became something I yearned to find. I noticed I was missing many of the ponds, lakes, and streams that one finds when hiking in the northeast. Water was scarce and when I found it, it is usually is not flowing freely as we are used to here on the East Coast. I was surprised by the open skies, the ability to see for miles and miles without anything blocking my view. I was also surprised by the colors. The flowers were showing pinks, yellows, and hues of purple. In areas where there had clearly been a forest fire recently, bright red growth was poking up through the ash. And then there was the Grand Canyon. On the South Rim were vibrant reds, especially as the sun shone on the rock. On the North Rim were striations of reds and browns and greens; the cut of the earth showing the layers of dirt that would change with depth.
It was a gift to be able to spend seven days in the Northern Arizona wilderness. It was a challenge to endure this hike alone, to have to worry about a lack of water and the presence of elk. But this wilderness experience offered me an opportunity to slow down, to reflect and pray, and to consider the beauty of a part of nature so new to me. I go on these hikes because life can become so full that I can lose sense of what is important. I go because the solitude and the severity of the wilderness gives me an opportunity to reflect.
But solo hiking also pushes me, challenges me, and at times leads me to a place where I am unsure and maybe even a little scared. Hence my fear about running out of water. It was not the animals that scared me (even though it was mating season for the elk), nor the terrain, and certainly not people. Rather it was the heat and dearth of water. I am used to having ample water sources when I go hiking and backpacking. Yet three days into the Arizona wilderness, I was afraid that I was going to run out of water. I started worrying so much it was getting in the way of my enjoyment. My anxiety would wash over me at times, especially after a hiker going the opposite way told me that all the tanks ahead were dry. This is a feeling that is not new to me and I imagine to others. We all have moments when the anxiety becomes overwhelming, when the unknown takes up all of our mental energies, and it becomes difficult to enjoy the moments of each day. Near the end of that day, as I was preparing to portion out the last liter of my water so that I could make it for three more days, I came upon a tank that I had been told was empty. Still, I checked. At the bottom of the tank I saw about three inches of glorious silty water. Hope was restored! I was about to get three liters from that tank and I would be fine.
These moments are part of the reason that I go into the wilderness. I go, not just for the experience of the grand views and the beauty, but also to face myself, to push myself, and maybe even to grow. I was going to be OK. I was OK. And in religious parlance, I would say that I was more than OK. I was blessed.
Jonathan Malone is pastor at the First Baptist Church of East Greenwich. You can find more about his hikes at www.wildernessjourneys.org.