This weekend was 25 miles of backpacking in 36 hours. Approximately 5000 feet accumulated elevation gain, 3000 of it in a 2 mile distance. The destination: Reavis Falls and Reavis Ranch in a day with my friend Dominic. Holy crap, what a trip.
Our initial plan had been Reavis Ranch, but I’m not sure when I’ll get a chance to backpack in that area again, so I wanted to see as much as possible and Dominic was down for a big mile push. The map said the waterfall plus the ranch would be a 15 mile day. I’ve managed 16 with less daylight before, and the ranch’s elevation gain seemed gentle (I didn’t look at the elevation gain for the waterfall – whoops) so I figured we could handle it.
We camped at the trailhead the night before and were on-trail by 6:45 am. The first ~3 miles was gentle uphill climbing in the cool morning air which made us overconfident. The flowers were blooming – one species smelled strongly of, ahem, semen (?!? I know there’s a tree that smells like this there weren’t any trees in this section) – and the mountains were gorgeously green and rolling. We could scarcely believe we were hiking in the Superstitions. It wasn’t like anything we’d seen in the Tonto before.
When we reached the turnoff for the unmaintained waterfall trail, it was a steeper up, but nothing too treacherous, and then started going relatively gentle downhill. Dominic and I passed a campsite where someone had left bottles of booze, a pair of pants and a torn up sleeping bag. “People are awful,” we moaned. “Maybe we can carry it back to the turnoff on our way out? And if it’s still there tomorrow, we can carry it out!” Ha ha. Our adorably sweet intentions.
Then the trail got decidedly less friendly. Steep downhills with loose soil and eventually eroded granite that acted like marbles under our feet. The mountain was a large garden of prickly pear cactuses. We’d only just started the big descent when I slipped and fell into one very large prickly pear plant. Dominic turned around and said he was sure he’d be pulling spines out of my back, but I managed to miss everything but a splinter in my finger.
As we continued down (and I fell on my ass several more times) we started voicing our concern for the trek back up: “That is going to be one bitch of a climb.” “And we still have six miles to get to the ranch afterward.” “But: Waterfall!”
After a full mile or so of treacherous footwork, we reached the creek at the bottom. Backpackers who’d camped overnight pointed us up the creek. “The waterfall is that way.”
There was little to no trail, only creek and boulders. Dominic seemed to be having a relatively easy time making it across the boulders and through bushes, but my pack kept getting caught on branches, yanking me back. I overheated quickly and told Dominic to go ahead while I sat by the creek and ate and cooled down. He didn’t get much further before finding a rock to catch a quick nap on and a half an hour or so later we met up and pushed forward.
My pack continued to get caught and eventually I decided to leave it on a boulder. I was more worried about forgetting where it was than someone stealing it. If someone wanted to haul that back up the mountain, more power to them.
And then, not even 20 minutes later, we were at the falls.
Dominic made a quick fire and cooked some potatoes, yams and onions he’d packed in tin foil and we had a hot, delicious lunch while resting our feet before heading back. My pack was where I’d left it. As I put it on, I noticed some movement out of the corner of my eye and spotted a silver frog/toad. I called out for Dominic, who is really into herping (he’d brought along a hook-type thing to scout for snakes, I was sending out all of my anti-rattlesnake vibes.) He caught it and took a picture with it and we moved on. The trek back through the creek was easier and we stopped at the trail turnoff (easy to miss if you’re looking for campers like I was – it’s marked by a cairn that blends in if you’re not paying close attention) to filter water.
Sitting there filtering water I realized just how hot it still was and how easily I was overheating just going through the creek. We’d planned to try to be at the top of the hike up by 4pm so that we could get to Reavis by sunset, but I couldn’t imagine hiking up 3000 feet in 80 degrees and direct sunlight. I knew I’d be miserable and have to stop every few feet at best, and that I could get dangerously overheated at worst.
“What if we wait here until the sun backs off and night hike the rest of the way instead?” I offered. Admittedly, I am not a night hiker – the only other time I’d done it was on the day I met Dominic on the top of Piestewa Peak. But that hadn’t been so bad, right?
Dominic would have definitely preferred to push for it because he wasn’t as bothered by the heat, but he’s a great backpacker and knows heat affects people really differently, so he acquiesced.
As I sat there continuing to filter our water, another backpacker showed up. He was an older guy and he was sweaty and breathing hard. “I don’t envy you hiking down in that sun,” I said. He put his pack down and chatted with us. We advised him to leave his pack to get to the waterfall and traded hiking suggestions and I filtered some water for him because he hadn’t brought his own (he planned to bum a filter off of other hikers or boil water if he ran out.) He told us about trying to navigate Hell’s Gate up north and took my suggestion for an easy trip to Horton Springs.
Eventually he moved on and Dominic and I found a rock to lay back on and close our eyes for a few minutes. Around 4 we started heading back up the mountain. It was hard, but I was immediately glad we’d waited until the sun went away. Still, as we climbed, I let out many a “fucking seriously?” and “you have got to be kidding me” as I looked up at the trail in front of me. Meanwhile, Dominic’s knee was cramping up. I stopped every few steps to catch my breath.
At one point I turned to Dominic and said, “This is making me feel like I’ve never hiked before.”
But that kind of hiking is both what I live for and what I detest. It’s the point of suffering in a hike. That used to come quickly in a hike for me, and I could easily reach that place in a 3-mile hike in town. Everything about hiking was new to me – if my hands were swelling I thought I might be dying, if I needed a break when other people were passing me I told myself I was terrible and should quit, if my muscles burned I thought it was the end of the world.
I still don’t love those things. They aren’t fun. But when you’re done with them, your experience of yourself expands. You go from “overwhelmed, bit off more than I could chew, what was I thinking?!” to: I did that. I didn’t think I could, but I did.
The more I hike, the more I’m able to manage that feeling of suffering. Instead of, “this is a disaster,” instead I think: This is hard as hell, but I’ll get there eventually. Admittedly, on the climb out of Reavis Falls, I was definitely thinking, Hey, if Dominic wants to call it quits and just head back to the trailhead, I’ll be totally cool with that. If Dominic doesn’t want to try to push to Reavis Ranch, I won’t argue.
(But I also wasn’t going to offer.)
When we passed the trashed campsite again, we both looked at each other wishing we were better (and less exhausted) people and left everything, the pants, the alcohol bottles, the sleeping bag there.
Shortly thereafter we were at the top, and the sun was going down.
Ah, yes, the top! Dominic was ready to get as close to the ranch as possible despite his knee. Still, we figured we would be alright. We were back to the promised land of minimal, gradual elevation gain before a relatively flat smooth-sailing to the ranch. The sufferfest was over! (This is the lie my brain likes to tell itself to induce further agony.)
We quickly start cruising along the trail and the temperature is wonderful and we’re finally not moving at a snail’s pace and I’m like, night hiking is great! But my headlamp, I’m realizing, isn’t super great. My eyes are working hard to make sense of the trail, which so far has been pretty smooth but occasionally tosses a bunch of rocks at me that my ankles have to work quickly to correct.
And then we started hiking on a ridge, with a sheer cliff to the side.
It’s fine, I tell myself. The trail is smooth and wide enough and I haven’t died yet ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha?
“I don’t love this cliff,” I say out loud, and my voice is shakier than I anticipated.
“We’re fine,” Dominic says. I’m doing my best to keep my anxieties at bay and not imagine my body tumbling down the mountain.
A few minutes later I hear him say something.
“What?” I ask.
“I said, that really is a cliff.”
And then my brain goes wild. It goes something like this:
*imagining body tumbling down mountain –*
Me: NO! Don’t think about that! One step at a time. One step at a time. One step at a…
*imagining twisting an ankle that sends me off-balance and tumbling down the mountain*
Me: I wonder who should be carrying the emergency Personal Locator Beacon? Is it better for it to be on the body of the injured, or in the hands of the safe?
Me: NO! Don’t think about that –
Me: What if DOMINIC is the one who falls?
Me: I said don’t —
Me: Dominic walks faster than me, maybe that means he’s in even more danger?!
And so on, until we’re at a saddle looking at a camp site. “Did you want to just camp here?” I ask. But Dominic doesn’t. He thinks he can squeeze a few more miles in before his leg gives out, and he’s sure there will be more campsites along the way.
“I’m just really freaking out about the drop off,” I tell him. I can’t really see well with my headlamp and it’s scaring me. “I hate to ask,” I say. “But can I use your flashlight instead?”
“Of course,” he says. So he puts on my headlamp and pulls out his secondary bike light and I turn on his flashlight and it’s suddenly like the night isn’t quite as scary anymore because I can actually SEE.
So, on we go. Over more rocky rocks, across more ridges. There aren’t, unfortunately, more established campsites to stay at, and Dominic’s knee is only getting worse. We’re shining our lights around a slightly slanted meadow when in the distance is what sounds like a high-pitched, guttural “helllllllllllp.”
“Fucking birds,” I say out of reflex.
Wait, I think.
It’s night time.
I don’t think that was a bird.
“What was that?” I ask. On second thought, it kind of sounded like a dying deer.
“I don’t know,” he says, but I can tell he probably knows and just isn’t excited about telling me.
Oh my god, I think. It’s a mountain lion. There’s a fucking mountain lion and it sees us and it’s making noises at us and —
“It’s a bobcat,” Dominic says.
“That’s like a mountain lion, right?!”
“But it eats people like mountain lions!?”
“No. They’re barely bigger than a house cat.”
“And you’re totally 100% sure they don’t eat humans?”
I choose to believe him. But then I also tell him we won’t be camping for a few more miles because I won’t sleep a wink if we stop anywhere near that noise.
Which turns out to be fine, because there aren’t any established campsites. Eventually we’re far enough away that I relax, and Dominic gives up on the established campsite route and instead finds a tree in a meadow to set up camp underneath. We stop at 10pm. We’ve hiked 14 miles. We’re only about a mile from the ranch, but when it’s quitting time, it’s quitting time.
We eat. I pass off half my lentils and rice to Dominic, and then half my cheesecake. I’m hungry but not.
“I’m sleeping in tomorrow,” Dominic says. I can hear him snoring a few minutes later. I text Mark from my PLB and let him know we’re safe and at camp.
The next morning we don’t get up until 8:30. We pack our bags with only food and water and leave our tents at camp and go explore the ranch. It occurs to me pretty quickly I should have read more about what there was to see at the ranch. Mostly it’s a big, open field with remnants of farm equipment. Dominic was interested in some of the rusted machinery out there, trailers and axles and an old Buick transmission (?).
We puttered around and then filled water at the creek and got back on the trail at 12:30. I pulled out my umbrella for the first time and sang it’s praises for the first 3 miles. After that, the wind picked up, and I kept switching between putting on a hat and long sleeves or using the umbrella. I felt like I was constantly adjusting where the umbrella was sitting so that it would cover the whole top half of my body, and in some instances it felt like I was obstructing my view when the sun was in front of me. I want to give it a few more chances, because I definitely like not having to wear long sleeves and have a hat on, but I also don’t want to be putting my bag down every mile or so to readjust.
The last 3 miles seemed to last forever. I kept telling myself that the trailhead was just around the corner, it had to be, we were going down hill, it was only three miles, the time should fly by. No such luck. At one point we ran into a group of hikers hiking in. “We’ve been hiking for about an hour,” they said.
“Are you joking?” I asked.
“No…” they said. “Ha, has he been lying to you about how far there is to go?”
“No,” I said. “I’ve been lying to myself.”
Dominic said the look they’d given him when we said we’d done both the Falls and the Ranch in a day made him puff up a bit.
I have a habit of trying to push to the end at the end, and becoming grumpy and tired and unpleasant. So around the next curve I plopped down in the dirt and let my feet rest in the shade for a minute. I wanted to get to the trailhead, but I didn’t want to have a constant stream of expletives running through my head every step of the way there.
40 minutes or so after that break, we got to the car.
The drive back I felt pretty delirious. I could only half-have a conversation. I found things ridiculously funny.
It’s a weird feeling post-hike. Even at the end of the day at camp. I spend much of the second half of the day agonizing over how far we’ll make it, over my fears, over phantom aches in my body. But then I get to camp, or the car, and it’s done, and I see the fruitlessness of my anxieties.
Not to mention, once I’m home and I’ve had a good sleep, my brain rewrites history. It wasn’t really that hard, was it? You could do it again. Of course you could. No problem. How about next weekend?
I guess that’s why I go back there again and again. Overcoming my anxieties in real, tangible ways. And a little bit of amnesia.