To the east of the Phoenix metropolitan area, a rugged national forest starts within ear shot of the major streets of Apache Junction. Within a ten minute drive, one's chief concern can change from crime to cougars.
The Superstition Wilderness is a massive, rock-strewn wasteland with only one road for motorized vehicles. It is a heaven for hikers. After studying a guidebook and looking over trails on Google Earth, I decided to attempt to climb Siphon Draw Trail up to nearby Flatiron peak, which towers over Apache Junction.
I parked at Lost Dutchman State Park, strapped up my little pack which contained water, nutrition bars and a light jacket, and headed up the trail at a stately pace.
People passed me, sure, but I assumed that like the tale of the tortoise and the hare, I would stride by them later as they sat exhausted on a rock.
The climb started gently, but it was enough to get me winded. It felt good to be forging into the wilderness like Daniel Boone. I came over a rise and, to my chagrin, there sat a house. In front of the house was a Cadillac Escalade, parked on the tar.
For crying out loud, I could have saved the first fifteen minutes of the hike by driving up to that house! Only slightly miffed at the waste of time, I plowed forward.
The trail steepened as the loose alluvial rocks rose up to meet the cliffs from which they had fallen. Steps were cut in the trail. My breathing was getting deeper. The sun hit an enormous red cliff to my left. The cliff was so featureless that this prairie dweller, untrained in things vertical which aren't elevators or water towers, couldn't tell whether it rose fifty or five hundred feet.
By assuming the giant saguaro at the base of the rock were 30 feet tall, I eventually calculated that the rock itself was over 750 feet high. Wow.
Now the climb required me to walk sideways on slanted rock. I was glad that my running shoes had good grip. In the shade of the canyon, the temperature dropped thirty degrees. I put on my jacket.
Two elderly couples met me in their climbing garb, steadying themselves with ski poles.
"Only two hours to the top!" one said.
What? I had already been going one hour. She must be kidding.
The gravel trail ended. I took this to be the place where the guide book said that things got "a bit strenuous."
I looked up at a massive draw, a wide gutter in the hard rock where water runs when it rains. I grimly set out to conquer the rock ravine on all fours. Half way up, I pulled to the side for an Army kid with his giggly girlfriend on their way down. She wore sandals. Sandals!
The steepness increased. Now I was grabbing rock ledges and pulling myself up. It was hazardous, but the memory of that girl in sandals prodded me onwards.
My running shoes were now inadequate and losing their shape. My ankles and knees scraped against rock outcroppings. My hands were about to bleed.
Every so often there were blue dots spray-painted on the rock. These dots were, I decided, memorials for the fallen, tributes which doubled as markers for the trail. Ten minutes later, I turned around to see a breathtaking view of the Valley of the Sun, home to four million people. I clung to the cliff. I could not see a way up. I decided that this in fact was the top. All the people who passed me must have just disappeared.
As I huffed and puffed and thought about what it must be like to ascend Everest, I looked over to an adjacent cliff and saw, under a rock, a pacifier. Yes, not only had somebody else made it this far, but they had brought their infant!
It was at Pacifier Point that I turned back in defeat, and a good thing I did. Going down is harder than going up. I bounced hundreds of feet on my butt down the draw.
Knees are better suited to climbing than descending. Mine started to wobble half-way down. My feet blistered. Weakened, I stumbled downwards, thumping my toes on embedded rocks and falling forward.
A couple in their 70s met me looking infuriatingly well-coiffed.
"Keep an eye out for the cougar!" I said, trying to justify my disheveled appearance.
They laughed. And I stumbled on down the trail, eager to get away from the cougars, in the car and back to the crime.