I had long dreaded this hike as the weather warmed. For one, this combination of the Alta and Bajada Trails was long, a loop of 8.3 miles in steep, up and down terrain, most of it in the lightly-traveled Ma Ha Tuak range of South Mountain Park. And all of it under a slow broil of 90-degree heat with little chance of shade.
Then there was this stonewall thing, an emotional one as big as the Wall of China I’d banged into not long ago trying to do Liu’s “Sixty Hikes” around Phoenix in a year. I had done 22 of Liu’s excursions by then. Trouble was I’d all but run out of hikes close to home. Ahead were longer hikes, farther out, time-consuming. I had other stuff to do. I wanted my life back. In short, I balked.
It was only with a spur in the flank from Nebra that on April 7 I set out on the Alta-Bajada trails. To make sure I didn’t put it in reverse at the trailhead, Nebra came with me. I can always count on her to make me face pain.
I elected to start with the Alta, doing it counter-clockwise to avoid having to slam up the steep west side. I thought, well, get the tough part out of the way first, rush down that wicked western hell, then cruise back to the parking lot over the level Bajada. I suppose, looking back on it, I should’ve taken more seriously Liu’s warning that the Alta is “the most challenging trail” in South Mountain Park. Funny how things work out.
At the parking lot, a 30ish Hispanic guy trudged by on his way to his car. He was pooped. Said he’d been hiking all week, and now it was warm and he was tired and he got no farther than the ridgeline when he turned back. An omen for me if there ever was one, that and the fact some of my drinking water had leaked out on the drive.
On our way up to that same ridgeline, three hikers, fairly young, passed us like we had the brakes on. They turned around at the ridgeline and passed us again, all smiley and happy, like it was a lark. Nebra was up on top about five minutes before me. I had a feeling then that this might not be my day.
At the ridgeline, the trail bent left. It was here several weeks ago that I took a right and traversed a faint trail across the tippy-tops of every promontory on the Ma Ha Tuak’s east side. Now, going the other direction, west, the Alta presented a clean trail, wide and clear of rock as it did a slight dip around the north slope of the range’s high ground, Maricopa Peak, at 2,522 feet. We stopped for lunch with a magnificent view of Phoenix.
I was starting to feel good vibes about the rest of the hike when we soon rounded Maricopa’s northwest corner and I saw the trail rise to a high point. I assumed it would go downhill from there. And I was right except for one thing. To get there, the trail drops down into a deep valley and then makes you gain all that elevation back up. Somewhere along that stretch, I was spent. Nebra was now walking about 200 yards in front of me.
To my credit I struggled to that encouraging high point I’d seen maybe 10,000 years ago, or so it seemed. In the distance behind, I could see the shapes of two young women coming our way, the only other hikers we’d see the last six miles. The young ladies passed us too. One was wearing a sun bonnet and carrying a purse like she was on her way to Macy’s. The other woman wore some cheap sandals and carried water in a plastic bottle. Sandals! Soon we were eating their dust as they vanished out of sight.
That steep trail I’d hoped to avoid on the west end was steeper than I thought, and so tough coming down to the conclusion of the Alta Trail at San Juan Lookout that even that winded me. I sucked air like a marathon runner crossing the tape.
San Juan Lookout is nothing more than a stone hut at the side of a parking lot, and today it was baking in the sun and letting in huge shafts of sunlight as the day entered its hottest phase. We found some shade opposite each other and finished off our sandwiches. My water was now seriously low. Nebra asked me about it, and I told her I was fine. I’m not sure she believe me.
Three men on horse back just came off the Bajada Trail as we were finishing up the Alta. All in good moods of course, even if their steeds weren’t.
Ah, I thought, well, we’re on the easy part now. Easy anyway is how Liu describes the Bajada. Only another four miles. By then the women decked out in sunbonnet, purse and sandals were long gone, on their way to the same parking lot we were. That made me feel all the worse, me with my top of the line hiking boots and backpack with “a water delivery system” inside.
Of course, the Bajada was pure hell. Only fitting, I thought, plugging along in the heat. A wildfire had wiped out almost everything. Only a few small trees remained among the sere chaparral. No shade. That was for sure. A trio of bicyclers swept by on San Juan Road that parallels the trail for a mile or so. They looked cool and rested.
Now, I even lost sight of Nebra, she was so far in front of me. Where the trail crosses the road, she stopped to wait, telling me, lying to me she thought the trail was pretty rugged. I lay my head down on the asphalt, praying a car tire would come along and put me out of the misery that had built up for more than hour. I had to suck like a demon now to draw even the smallest amount of water from my gasping delivery system.
Liu gauged the entire loop, Alta and Bajada, taking only four hours. But at the fourth hour I was a long way from the finish line. The Bajada suddenly turned in to an up-and-down hell, passing through ravine after ravine, some 15-20 feet deep, all loose rock and tiring. Somewhere along there, I no longer can remember when, two 20-year-olds, a young guy and then an even younger woman came jogging, jogging my god, past me. I was now stopping every 100 steps or less to catch my breath, I was that tired and beat. But one thing worked in my favor. The sun was beginning to set and I could literally feel the desert heat slinking off into thin air.
Nebra caught me on video coming to the parking lot. I took a look at it later, and decided, despite the fact I’d survived a hiker’s death march of a high order, I strode in looking like a champion. I’ll live for another day and maybe another hike.