29 December 2016

Special Forces and Random Love Letters in the Desert

Yesterday I met with my surgeon for my fourth annual follow up visit.  This spring marks four years since my cancer diagnosis and recovery.  After each of our brief visits, I always have plans for something pleasant to soften the anxiety and to leave Phoenix with a positive vibe.  In previous years I’ve scheduled lunch at my favorite French bistro with my sister or cousin, but since my doctor moved her office across town, that wasn’t really an option this year.  Instead I plotted a long solo hike in the mountains west of Phoenix along the Mesquite Canyon and Willow Canyon trails.

White Tank Regional Park is a large county park, the western geographic boundary of the Valley of the Sun.  Like most desert mountains, these are steep and rocky, lined with dry canyons and few trees.  I recall coming here from time to time as a child, for celebratory picnics; as an adult I’ve been back a few times, mostly to hike with my in-laws.  Several years ago, Dan and the girls and I spent two nights here, backpacking in and camping at an abandoned sheep corral.  The water from the nearby spring was so alkaline it curdled our dry coffee creamer.  On that trip we played cribbage, drank bourbon, and explored the mostly dry tinajas (depressions scoured out of bedrock, usually below dry waterfalls, which fill with rainwater and runoff) which give the mountains their name.

This trip, though, I was hoping to complete an eight-mile loop which would take me beyond that camp, and return in time to have a late lunch with a friend from high school afterward.  I’d done another long solo hike recently, Picacho Peak north of Tucson, a landmark I’ve driven by dozens of times in the past.  It was a fantastic experience to be alone in the desert with my boots and my mind.  Life is short and I intend to take more time to explore places I've always wanted to go from here on out.  The trail begins at the mouth of a canyon, climbing gradually but continually.  A recent storm had brought a lot of rain to the area, and the desert was damp and muddy in places, green shoots carpeting the ground where it isn’t covered in stones and boulders.  I felt strong as I hiked, stopping infrequently to chug water or for a quick snack.  I had to keep moving to avoid feeling chilled.  After the first mile or so, I encountered other hikers only rarely.  The solitude and silence were exactly what my post-holiday mind craved.  I’d finished Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard earlier this week, which details his trek in the Himalaya in the 1970’s.  It’s a beautiful book about many things, among them how to live in the present moment as fully as possible, which is what hiking alone does for me.  It’s a story that I know I will read again and that I will carry in my heart for a long time.

In the desert mountains, the terrain is varied, but the vegetation appears dispersed with care, almost planned:  a saguaro or two studs the landscape and is surrounded by perfectly placed brittlebush, grasses, and small boulders covered with desert varnish.  The colors blend and are generally muted this time of year, with nearly nothing in flower.  It’s as if the countryside is storing its energy to release all its vibrant colors in a single explosion of spring blooms.

And so, when my eye was drawn to a small, bright white square, I investigated.  The white square was folded paper, anchored with a square stone to a rough granite boulder right along the trail.  I unfolded it and revealed this message:

I can only assume it’s part of the random love letters movement that I learned about over the summer.  I left a random love letter earlier this summer myself as part of a calligraphy challenge I participated in on Instagram, but I’d never found one in the wild, or anywhere else for that matter.  Its effect on me was so profound and positive that I’m inspired to make a true effort to leave many for strangers to find.  I re-folded this note and replaced it, hoping others will be touched by its message.

As I approached the junction where I intended to take my next break, I happened upon an old man seated on a rock outcropping overlooking the canyon I would soon descend into.  He waved both arms above his head and smiled broadly.

“I’m so glad you’re here!” he cried out, as if he’d been waiting for me.  “Sit!  Here’s a good rock.  It’s lunch time!”

Now, in a city, I doubt I would have even made eye contact with such an exuberant person, so wary are we of our own species.  But here, high above the city, I thought, “Why the hell not?”

We never exchanged names, although we did share dried mango and pretzels.  He asked about my life and told me of his:  special forces in Vietnam, teaching biology in Denver, dividing the year between Colorado and Arizona in the RV he shares with his wife.  He told me he hikes this eight-mile loop twice a week and that after his 80th birthday this spring, he hopes to climb another fourteener in Colorado with his son and grandson.  He was as gregarious a character as I’ve ever met.  I wondered, as I continued down the trail, how many hikers he’s shared his lunch with in that spot.

And on I went, past the low sheep corral where we’d camped those years before (the only level place, it seemed, in this tangle of canyons and ridges), and back up again only to wander back down.  Once back in my car, I whizzed past the fields of flowers grown for florists, rows of lettuce, and a few remaining citrus groves on my way to share a pint of Guinness and laughter with an old friend just a stone’s throw from the high school where we met decades prior.  This morning I awoke to the silence of a sleepy house not yet stirring, reflecting on the magic of a day well-spent.