The thing about hiking is this. You never know what you’re going to meet up with along the trail. It could be bad. It could be good. Yesterday it was good.
It was that time of year, at long last, in the arid lands. The heat had departed, cooler air prevailed and hikers, bikers and joggers re-appeared in larger numbers along the trails of North Mountain Park in Phoenix.
The park is a gem of a place, an oasis of natural beauty surrounded on all sides by look-alike homes and an exclusive resort on a hilltop. Yet in the park you can travel three miles or maybe even six in the inner basins and see no more in two hours than 50 people. Usually a lot less. And, when, like late yesterday afternoon, a rain storm begins to slip in from the south, the experience of being there borders on therapeutic. A light shower nudges from the numerous creosote the most pleasant aroma imaginable.
Add to that the color and majesty of in-coming clouds at dusk and you have something akin to paradise.
I set out from the Visitors Center about 4:30 with my usual gear. A camera and notebook. Immediately I heard the thunder of footsteps and stood aside as 10 American Indian boys whizzed by shirtless and in shorts, obviously a cross-country team in training. They came upon me so quickly that I was unable to shoot a photo of what to me is a rare sight in the park. They were all serious, on the fast track to whatever transient goal they seek.
My usual route carries me through what I call the inner basin between the two highest points in the park, North Mountain on the southeast corner and Shaw Butte on the northwest. They are small as mountains go, just over 2,000 feet elevation and rise about 600 feet above the hilly terrain below.
The inner basin is really two basins, an east and a west, separated by a divide spanning the two peaks. The east is the most popular one, it being nearest the Visitors Center and a large paved parking lot. I’ve done the east one a lot, idly walking along a jeep trail through a desertscape of mostly creosote and small palo verde trees with a smattering of cactus and young saguaro. But seeing the large number of cars in the lot, I decide to hike over to the paved trail that leads up to the summit of North Mountain with its disgusting cellphone towers, a distance of about 1.4 miles. It seemed a relaxing aftermath to a sumptuous meal at my favorite buffet.
As I approached a ridge that stands 100 feet above busy 7th Street, I stopped to take a photo of the inner basin. It was then that a Japanese woman approached. She wore black pants and shirt and a cap I can no long remember. She looked to be in her 60s, hiking alone. I had seen her on the other side, down the trail about 100 feet, poring over printed material. I assumed she was lost.
“Can you tell me how to get to the 100 trail?” she asked, walking right up to me. The “100” is the Christiansen Trail that runs not only through the park but meanders on maybe 10 more miles through the mountain preserves to the east side of Phoenix, near its border with Scottsdale. The woman said she was trying to get to 7th Avenue and Cheryl, south of the park, to catch a city bus back to wherever she was staying. I eyeballed her map and gave her the directions. With a pleasant “thank you” she headed west down the trail I’d just come up.
The encounter was amazing in a way. Here you have this older woman hiking alone in a remote area of a country not her own, and stopping to ask directions from an absolute stranger, a person much larger than she, all without a hint of fear. So unlike Americans, particularly women, who seem so afraid and cautious they will refuse to say hi, nod or even look your way as you pass them on the trail, their minds I suppose cluttered with thoughts of murder, of rape and mutilation. This Japanese woman, whoever she was, did a powerful PR job on me. My admiration of the Japanese culture shot up a notch. I’ve noticed too this same openness and fearlessness in European hikers. It’s depressing to see Americans so afraid, so aloof, so tense, so trying to be cool and overly safe, trying to protect their children from stranger-danger that you begin to wonder if the U.S.A. has totally lost its courage, been changed forever, probably by 9/11, and it can not avert a downward spiral into hellish zones of a Third World nation. I think our ancestors would be disappointed of what they could see now.
Storm clouds began to swoop in as I returned to the Visitors Center. I pass more hikers, staring straight ahead like zombies. Maybe it’s me, I wonder. I certainly don’t have that puppy-dog look. But I grew up in a small Kansas town where almost everyone would say hello or raise a finger off the steering wheel in recognition as we passed. I refuse to forget those days. I will not act like the suburbanites that have barricaded themselves in their homes or within gated walls, alone and comfortable, so untrusting, so insulated from reality. I suppose that’s why “reality” TV shows are so popular now.
I sit down in front of the Visitors Center, make a few notes after checking the pedometer. 5,750 steps or about 2.75 miles, time 5:55. I had been out almost an hour and a half and yet it did not seem that long at all. More important, it had been an exhilarating hike with the clouds rolling in. Just being there. And the “lost” Japanese woman had helped make it that way. I trust she found her way home and enjoyed her outing as much as I had mine.