There I was in the Arizona Biltmore in Phoenix again. Nothing to do all day but wait for my man to bring home the bacon. It’s kind of a weird time machine I have put myself through this summer. I remember when my mom used to accompany my dad to conferences and trade events, the sponsor would have “activities” to keep the wives entertained while their hubbies were busy talking business with the other Business Men. Those days are gone. Conference sponsors rightly assume that the spouses of attendees (of whichever gender) have their own damn conferences to attend in a completely different conference center. Yet here I am, a spouse at a conference, looking for ways to entertain myself.
With the experience of being trapped at a bland resort and forced to eat $20 deli salads fresh in our memories, we rented a car this time.
The first day, after my walk along the canal filled with water stolen from a wetter place, I took the car out for an explore. I found a grocery store (meant it), Scottsdale (didn’t mean it), and the trailhead of the trail to the top of the peak that I could see from my cell at the Biltmore (meant it but was surprised to find that pointing the car in that direction actually worked). By the time I found the trailhead, it was noon and over 100 degrees, so I vowed to come back the next day as early as possible, as the forecast called for 106 degrees the following day.
After a lousy night using all my willpower not to scratch two legs full of mosquito bites (golf courses beget standing water begets mosquitos), I was a little groggy and slow the next morning. I decided the hill (actually Piestewa Peak on the map) could wait another day. I told Drew of my non-plans as he left for his full day of conference going. However, after two cups of coffee and a little leftover boredom, I decided to make a somewhat belated exit and head for the hills.
So, well after 9:00 a.m., with the temperature already climbing out of the 80s and into the 90s where it could really stretch out, I parked, added one more layer of sunscreen, and set off.
There were many trails starting from the trailhead, and as I am not good with either translating those stupid kiosk trail maps or telling where I am in space, I just decided to follow the trail marked “1A.” That sounded safe, like a green dot ski slope.
The trail sent me around the base of the hill to the other side of what I learned later was the Phoenix Mountains Reserve. At the time, I was looking forward to doing some climbing, so I was a little bummed at the gentleness of the slope. I could feel the temperature climbing, but I had applied every sunscreen product and carried a bottle of water. Because only dummies hike in 90-degree heat without water.
Finally, the trail points upward toward the peak. The actual “1A” trail seemed to crest about 100 feet shy of the actual peak that I had been staring at from my gilded cage at the resort, so I took a gravelly, slippery little side trail up to stand on the peak.
What makes this peak so special (okay, what makes most peaks so special) is that the top is really pointy. That’s why they call it “mountain climbing,” not “mountain walking.” You have to use all your limbs to get up there. You might as well. At that angle, your arms are as close to the earth as your legs are. And when you get to the top, there is very little of earth left to stand on. Most of the ground is at a completely different elevation, and if you mistakenly step on the part of the ground that isn’t there, you will fall a long way before meeting the earth again – at an unpleasant velocity.
I love hiking to peaks and it surprises me every time how dizzy I get when I make it to the top. I look down, my cerebellum switches off and I forget how not to fall. But yes, I took a selfie, and yes, I was sitting down for them and still pretty sure I was going to go splap onto the trail far below. I embodied the danger of selfies, now known to kill more people than sharks. So I took my selfie and skedaddled back down.
Another thing I keep forgetting is that if you climb up a gravelly peak using all of your limbs, you many not have that option on the way down. Actually, you have three options, in descending order of humiliation: (1) go down the way you came up, this time backward. However, since you are at a less-than-90-degree angle, you will be safe, but you will look like 1960s TV Batman and Robin pretending to climb a building by climbing a floor and tilting the camera; or (2) slide down on your ass and buy new pants at the bottom; or (3) walk down in 6-inch increments, sliding and gasping all the way. I chose (3) and my heart chose a new, kicky rhythm.
So I’m up the peak, down the peak, and ready to head for the car. The trail seems to loop back toward the parking lot, but there is a little bowl to cross before several rises in the trail, which hide the way ahead. How far to the car? Let’s find out. Across the little bowl to the first rise (with handy steps cut into the rock), which leads me to a second flat and a final steep rise to a ledge about as high as the peak I just climbed. No problem. It’s getting hot but I’m making good time and I still have most of my water…wait. Why are my hands empty of water bottles? Why don’t I remember carrying water bottles since I was on top of that peak a mile away? Well, the water is staying on the peak because that was hard and I’m almost done.
Luckily, this new peak comes with steps cut in the rock, which makes it much more firm under my boots, and at the top of this ledge I ought to be able to see my car in the parking lot.
Except. The top of this rise reveals another, larger bowl maybe a half-mile across and just as deep as the base trail, surrounded by ledges as high the ledge I am standing on. And I see bits of trail here and there, but I can’t make out exactly where the trail goes and how it comes out the other side. I’m pretty sure it does, and I’m pretty sure the parking lot is on the other side of this new bowl, but I’ve been wrong already today. I would ask a passerby, but it turns out that Phoenix citizens have more sense than to be here right now. I have only passed one mountain bike and two humans all morning.
I sit to think. I am in an unfamiliar environment. The heat is only getting hotter. Nobody knows where I am. I don’t know for sure where this trail leads. I have no water.
I headed back the way I came. A couple of known climbs and a long-ass hike around the base of what I now understand is a complex of hills is better than betting on an unknown trail in an unfamiliar area. And the temperature will hit the century mark by noon.
I trudged. I got that gooey white stuff on the edges of my mouth. I told myself to put one foot in front of the other, like a prisoner on a forced march. I imagined myself as one of those crawling, thirsty desert guys. It seemed to take forever before I could see the damn parking lot, and then once I saw it, forever to make it to the car. And water.
And that’s how I nearly gave myself heat stroke in the desert while in the Phoenix city limits. By the time Drew got back from his conference day, I was well hydrated, unsunburnt (because of my expert sunscreen application), and rested. No one has to know.