the Grand Enchantment Trail (and my grand re-education from this season’s hikers)

Following my Grand Enchantment Trail hike this spring I returned from New Mexico to southern Arizona.

Mid-April in the Sonoran – nearly a month and a half since I’d starting walking in the Superstitions, a lackluster year it had seemed for the bloom. But a lot can change in 40 days in the desert. Rain can fall, and it can make a difference. Oh what a difference it can make! The few wildflowers I’d seen in March – ephemerals, annuals – had less use for this belated nourishment, having banked on winter moisture mediocre at best this year. But for the cactus – the late bloomers – a few days’ good soaking in late March was all it took to turn the tide. Now the desert at last was alive! Englemann prickly pear, each bristly pad bearing a big, waxy, yellow flower, soft to the touch and defenselessly free of thorns. Hedgehog cactus, small and often unnoticed, now impossible to ignore for their vibrant fuchsia display. And everywhere the ocotillo, dead sticks no more, now heavy in a coat of tiny green leaves, each waving tendril topped with a drooping flourish of punch bowl red. Christmas colors under the April sun, a kind of madness. A psychedelia insisting, not that I retire for the season to the shade, but to keep going; to start my hike all over again, and move on endlessly with the heat and sun; that I’d begun the first time much too early, rather than in caution too late. Something a-buzz in the desert air, reminding us while we’re alive that it’s never too late to begin again.

The Sonoran desert is a land chock full of paradoxes. Full of thorns but green and lush. Dry but wet by desert standards. Beautiful and enticing to behold at length, yet rugged and challenging to know up close. Spend enough time here, though, and the paradoxical becomes reconciliable. The land remains strange and wondrous, but the shock value eventually wears off. The thorns become an expected price to pay for every patch of shade-tree greenery. Water is still too far apart, but you learn to know where it’ll be, and that, ultimately, it won’t be too far to reach. The trails will be vague and rough, if there’s even a trail, but the scenery will always make up for it – assuming there’s anything to apologize for. And what of the sun and heat? It’s hotter back in the city of course, and the city seems to add a few thousand eager new residents every month. You just get used to it out here after awhile. But it does take time.

I am not a native of Arizona, nor do I live here now. But I have. I’ve spent time in the mountains outside Tucson, hiking all of the trails I could manage on weekends, supporting myself with odd jobs in town the other days. I had only a bicycle for transportation back then, so whenever the urge to go farther afield became unbearable I’d dump my meager savings into a rental car, travel around the state in search of backcountry adventure. I’ve lived in New Mexico too, and following the same general theme. And I’ve been back to southern Arizona again. I’ve worked as a landscaper here in the mid-day murder of June and July, saving up for other adventures: the PCT, maybe the CDT one day. And I’ve walked the Arizona Trail, thru-hiking from Mexico to Utah – or whatever I could actually find of the trail to hike. But somewhere along the way it happened. I can’t say exactly when, and I can’t claim ownership of the experience. Like many others who’ve spent extended time in these parts – be they day hikers smiling under 100 degree heat in the Superstitions, or mountain bikers proudly bearing cactus-induced battle scars, or any of the dozens who now can claim an Arizona Trail end-to-end completion – the desert has changed me too. It’s changed my mind about deserts. Somewhere along the way the Sonoran, in spite of its occasional bad habits, became my friend. And friends can never fail.

The psychological advantage of “having the desert on your side” is huge. In fact it’s so big that I seem to have completely missed it. Instead I’ve spent more than a fair amount of time promoting the GET from an emotional place, presenting its face as I see it and not always as it objectively happens to be. Pretty pictures and gushing prose can inspire, and that can be a good thing, but only a personal familiarity with desert hiking can ground that inspiration in reality. Better that the GET website help to confirm one’s interest in such a hike, than try to create that interest out of the blue. I recognize this now, but unfortunately not in time to help, at least this go-round. For this I apologize. I know lives were put on hold this spring, money was earned and spent, plans were set in motion. Some have mentioned having a grand adventure all the same. It’s heartening to hear.

The future of thru-hiking along this route belongs to the person who can dispense with my ramblings, grab some maps, and simply go. Having thru-hiked other trails is no guaranteed prerequisite. Nor does the weekend hiker, hardened desert explorer but new to thru-hiking, choose well in this particular endeavor. This would seem to be an ultimate paradox, excluding all possible candidates. Only the next successful GET thru-hiker can solve this riddle. (It’s happened before.)

In the meantime, I intend to continue writing the online guidebook and to update the town guide, water chart, etc. Thru-hiking is not the only way to explore the route, of course. And it’ll help to provide a better understanding of the route’s layout to those who might express an interest in helping to improve trail conditions, or protection for the route wherever threatened by development.

For those who may be thinking of trying a long hike along the GET, I’d like to emphasize that an eastbound hike in springtime is not the only way to experience the route. In fact it’s more challenging in many respects than a westbound hike in autumn. It’s often less challenging in terms of finding water, but springtime heat, sun, snowpack, and creek fording can certainly trump the water advantage, or so I’m learning. The westbound thru-hiker begins at Sandia Crest – the eastbounder’s “Mt Katahdin” – and experiences a combination of high, forested mountain hiking interspersed with more moderate desert environments, not at all unlike the CDT in New Mexico. Thusly hardened, the westbounder heads into Arizona, with its more extreme topography, harsher deserts, and rougher trails. And here the hiker arrives late enough in autumn to avoid the conspiracy of sun and heat that in springtime can compound the challenges.

I’ve travelled the route in both directions, but refuse to play favorites. The aspens in fall color, or the desert in bloom? Early morning bird song along Aravaipa Creek, or an evening of bugling elk in the Black Range? One final mountain range to climb, or one last waving saguaro to tip my hat toward? In the end it doesn’t matter to me, as long as I get to come back. As long as this wild land beckons, and a way exists to heed its familiar call.

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