Yesterday I took a long-midwinter stroll. But it didn't look like this (a hike I took a couple Januarys ago in my native Indiana):
No, it actually looked like this:
I am in Arizona a few days, working on my tan. Strike that. My tan is definitely NOT something I am working on. One melanoma surgery is enough. I only took my hat off for the picture above because my many fans are disappointed when they can't see my luxurious locks of chestnut-brown hair.
No, I come to get away from my responsibilities, and to have time to think and pray. Also to escape the Paparazzi. Man, those guys are relentless!
Arizona is wonderful for hiking in the winter, of course. Plus, my third-favorite sister lives here, and is always happy to put me up.
Yesterday I returned to one of my favorite haunts: the Black Canyon trail, about an hour north of Phoenix.
The trail feels like an old friend. I guess I have hiked it about a dozen times over the years. It is wild, yet familiar, challenging, yet comforting.
The challenge is two-fold. First, the trail goes on forever, so you can tax yourself without ever getting to the end. Second, to access most of the trail, you have to cross a raging, torrential river, the Agua Fria (which is Spanish for "The River of Danger, Death and Dismemberment". Probably).
Okay, I may have exaggerated this. But there really is a river:
Some years I have had to turn back at the river; recent rains had made it too high. Other times I have taken off my boots and socks and waded across. Yesterday I was able to find a crossing over a dozen stepping stones. It was tricky, but my cat-like reflexes kept me dry.
Near the river a small female bird of unknown species came to visit. I know she was female because she apparently liked the look of me. She sat down on a rock less than three feet away and hung out for a few minutes:
Eventually the bird flitted away from me, unlike what like most chicks do. Oh well. I continued the hike.
The only other folks nearby were a couple hiking with two dogs. They passed me on the trail, but then returned about 10 minutes later. The woman explained that they turned back because a wild burro was blocking the trail up ahead. Apparently the beast was acting aggressive and spitting at them. Burros spit? Who knew?
I decided to take my chances and forge ahead. I mean, not for nothing did Outdoor Magazine name me the bravest hiker in America for eight years running.* I figured if worse came to worse I could pick up a big rock and defend myself. Besides, I really wanted to see a spitting burro.
Alas, my bravery was bootless for the trail was burro-less. No doubt they used their burro super-vision and spotted far-off that I was a well-muscled man of focus, commitment, and sheer will; no burro wants to tangle with that.
Therefore I have no photos of spitting burros to share with you. But I can give you an idea of the landscape:
I kept hiking, testing my endurance. At this point I was completely alone. It struck me how unusual for us to be so isolated from other humans in our culture. I reckoned there was no one in at least two or three miles of my location. The feeling was both liberating, but also a little spooky.
About five miles in I suddenly remembered two things. First, I would, in fact, have to hike back to my vehicle. Second, I was no longer in the condition I was the year won the Boston Marathon, the Tour de France and Wimbledon.**
I turned around.
When I got to the river I decided to hike along it for a while, rather than cross it. I had seen a stand of cottonwood trees, yellow in the late winter, that I wanted to explore. The scene did not disappoint, especially as the bright leaves contrasted with some green rock out-croppings near the water.
One thing I love about hiking out here is the subtle beauty of small things. Even the rocks are wonderful, to speak nothing of the cacti, the flowers, and even the lichen.
These mid-winter hikes are not just a diversion for me, an escape from my responsibilities and from the midwestern cold. They are soul-food. They are God-reminders. They are peace-restorers. I am incredibly grateful that my wonderful wife encourages me to make them a priority.
Thank you, Amy!
*No need to fact-check this. You should trust a pastor.