On my first trip to Arizona, I got it into my head that it would be a good idea to go hiking in the desert. I pulled out a map and looked for something that was within easy striking distance of Phoenix, and I came on the Superstition Mountains. After a bit of quick research, I found a trail to the old Reavis Ranch that had been founded in the late 1800’s and was working until it was abandoned sometime in the 1960’s. (It folded after the demand for the vegetables grown on the ranch was wrecked by the availability of cheap produce from California in the new "supermarkets.") I decided to go. I threw together a pack, got a goodly amount of water and made my way east.
A bit of background to the background… One of the first things that struck me about Arizona was that it’s really big. As a direct consequence of this, I found that I’m largely incapable of reading maps and not much better at reading the land while I’m there. I’ve grown accustomed to the scale of the northeast where the other end of a state map is a little over two hours away, and where seeing a ridge generally means that it really is within walking distance. By contrast, driving to the end of map in AZ will likely have you on the road for a solid eight hours or more, and because the land is largely unobscured by trees or water vapor, you can generally see the end of the map from any given high point.
Anyway, I was fortunate because the Superstitions were not unreasonably far away from where I was staying, though the lack of correct perspective did have some effect on the trip. I reached the trailhead I was looking for sometime around 8:30. I checked my water (about double what I normally carry), threw on my pack and started walking. Even the trail was big. In contrast to the narrow tracks that you find running through the mountains and forests of New England, the eastern part of the Reavis trail was more akin to a road than a path. It looked like it had once been a wagon track, winding lazily upward from the trailhead, and switching back only to leap through notches in the ridge.
I hiked until I reached the end of the ridge the trail had been snaking through. There was a sad tree that provided some shade and a bit of a windbreak, and I sat and looked down the trail as it wound downward now into a valley that looked a little more fertile than the terrain I had just crossed. I’m not sure how long I sat there watching as the breeze whiffed through the grasses below, but eventually, I packed up again and walked downwards, convinced that the grove of apple trees that grows near the ruins of the ranch was not far off.
I must have walked a few miles into the valley before I began to see signs of former human habitation. I came to the barbed wire fence that ostensibly marked the limits of the ranch’s territory at about the same time that I realized that I had exhausted a little over half of my water supply. I took a seat on an abandoned piece of machinery to consider whether I should push on ahead to find the main ruin and rewater at Reavis Creek or if I should let discretion be the better part valor and turn back with the water and experience I already had.
As I sat there considering what to do next, a trio of horsemen rode over a knoll that lay further down the trail. I was transfixed. After a day of wandering, they looked otherworldly, more akin to mythical creatures than man and horse. I can laugh about it now, but at the time, I remember thinking that there was absolutely nothing I could have done to get away from them if things went sour. They were bigger than me and faster than me, and I swore that I would never watch a western and wonder why the guy at the campfire always looked on stupidly as the big-bad rode into his camp and gunned him down. It’s a paralysis that stems not from dull wit, but from an understanding that there’s nothing to be done. Luckily, our exchange didn’t involve guns, knives, or other weapons.
Instead, the first one reached me at his easy pace and said, simply, "You’re a long way out for being on foot. Where are you coming from?"
"I came in on the eastern end of the trail," I told him, "I was thinking that I might walk down to Reavis Creek and then head back."
He laughed. "We rode down there yesterday to camp and are on our way out. You’ve a ways to go yet."
I frowned a little. "I guess the hike was a little more involved than I had expected. I’m not accustomed to hiking in the desert, and I honestly don’t have a clear idea of how far I’ve come. I know that I’ve been walking for a few hours at least."
The others had arrived at this point, and they, too, took some interest in my being where I was. One of them spoke next, "Where do you normally hike?"
"Back east, mostly. I’ve spent a lot of time in the White Mountains in…"
"The Whites? You’re a brave man. That’s Apache country."
"No, sorry…" I was laughing. "I meant the White Mountains in New Hampshire. Any mountains in Arizona are a completely new experience to me."
They laughed, too. "Well, New Hampshire ain’t Apache country. Not last we checked anyway. What brought you out here?"
"It’s my first trip to Arizona, and I had this crazy notion that I needed to get to know the land. I have an even crazier one that I can’t get to know the land unless I walk on it."
They seemed to approve of this, and we ended up talking a while longer while they dismounted and had their lunch. Before long, they were on their way again and I set off behind them. The sun was setting by the time I got back to the trailhead, by now out of water and a little shaken because I had narrowly avoided stepping on a rattler on the way back. The riders were still there, in the process of prepping the horses to roll and having a beer to mark a successful trip.
I stumbled down to my car and the first one I talked to walked over and told me that they guessed I walked well over twenty miles, and that I didn’t look any worse for it. He grinned and handed me a beer.