A couple days ago, Holly asked me a question.
Hi Chris — I’ve read your account of this hike and the one up Sabino Canyon a couple of times now, shaking my head in amazement each time, and I just have to ask:
why do you go hiking in the desert in the summer?
I recently posted something about how miserable it was to be forced to march in a parade in southern Arizona in July, and one of the MANY reasons I hated playing church softball each summer as a teen was that practice was always from about 6 to 8 a.m. because then it was only REALLY hot then instead of REALLY, REALLY hot. I took plenty of long walks and went for plenty of long bike rides in the summer, but I always did it after about 6 p.m., when the temperature would drop to about 90.
So what’s the appeal of a 10-mile hike when it’s over 100 degrees?
Posted by Holly on 07/26 at 04:40 AM
I have been puzzling over exactly how to answer this, because the answer isn’t immediately clear to me. (I love questions like that.)
There is an extent to which the question is based on a misapprehension. It’s not so much that I like to go for long hikes when the weather’s insanely hot, as it is I find myself so dependent on long hikes that I am reluctant to let triple-digit temperatures stop me. I have had it suggested to me that hiking fills the same need in me that church attendance fills in other people, and that seems not inaccurate, and so what if some days I go to a nice air-conditioned Episcopal service and some days to Bikram Yoga and some days to a fundamentalist Muslim self-flagellant mortification-of-the-flesh parade?
But there is more. Some of it is sheer joy at the subjective effects of my surface-area-to-volume ratio increasing: I sweat much less than I did forty pounds ago, and there is a kind of pleasure in feeling my body become more able to meet physical challenges with less strain. Some of it is knowing that I’ll pass fewer people on the trail if it’s 100 degrees than if it’s 75. And there is the boasting, of course. One cannot overstate the importance of the boasting.
But there is more. It is rather hard to pin down, but there is more.
I’m not the extreme sports type. I’ve gone rafting Class IV whitewater and enjoyed it and will probably do so again, and that’s about it for my active defying of death. I do understand, on an intellectual basis, the attraction of propelling oneself up a sheer rock face supported only by fingers and toes, the reading of the rock, the visceral, pre-verbal intimacy with it that must result. I just now finished reading Craig Childs’s book The Way Out, describing a hike Childs and a friend took across a forbiddingly remote stretch of the Colorado Plateau slickrock country, and the way he describes his groping his way up terminal rock surfaces is rather compelling. Of course, just about every single hike Childs writes about seems compelling and dangerous and fraught with peril. In fact, I’ve been playing with the idea of writing an essay called “Craig Childs gets a cup of coffee” in which the carrying of boiling liquid in paper cups and stirring into it of cream are described in florid, breathless tones.
I do not know exactly what I sought in the transaction. The simple, pedestrian dosing of the central nervous system with caffeine seemed important, but why, I thought to myself, does this society deflate the term “pedestrian” by using it as a synonym for “boring”? We have forgotten how to walk in this age, lost the vital forces and energies transmitted through the living rock into our soles.
The barista was not swayed by this line of thought, however, and repeated her request that I put my shoes back on. She handed me the cup of coffee, a volcanic venti steaming like the travertine-clad fumaroles of Yellowstone, and I grasped it with my fingertips. I carried the cup back to my table, where my wife, artist Regan Choi, waited with a maple scone glazed with the blood of far-off trees. What feet had trod this same path in years past, the songline from counter to table? I was heedful of the importance of balance. Too far in either the left or right direction, and I would blunder into a table and scald my hand. An ancient sacrament, this drinking of the juice of Arabic seeds scathed in the cleansing fire of the roaster, and not without its peril.
And then a way suddenly opened itself up to me in the Starbucks carpet, and it was as if I was seeing the act of walking for the first time. I reached our table in a heartbeat. But something in my wife’s face portended dread, as if she had read in me some hidden failure, a misstep that would force me to retrace my path, and then I knew it was true with a sinking in the pit of my heart: I had forgotten the napkins.
Etc. But that’s just rank envy on my part. I wish I could know the desert the way Childs does, and exposure to it brings out the grandiose in me without fail. Compared to what I know of the desert, Childs’ writing is subtle. Still, I tend to seek a quieter drama. There are viscera of the intellect as well. Sheer endurance is its own extreme sport, and all the knobby wheels and bungee cords mere trappings.
But there is more. The heat is the way the desert is. I want to know the desert, so I must know the heat. The Joshua trees can’t huddle in the air-conditioning, and the kangaroo rats still distill water from dry seeds when the temperature peaks. And there is this: as the desert goes, so goes the world. I pore over paleontological references and imagine the Pleistocene pluvial, and the altithermal Holocene to come is every bit as interesting and far more hidden, so I explore it as it manifests. How will it feel to live when springtime temperatures reach 100 on a frequent basis? When Phoenix is depopulated and Los Angeles a ruin for lack of water, the aqueducts gone dry? How will it feel to be a child in that landscape? What will my niece Sophie’s children face? I want to know, and so I walk.
But there is more. A few short years and I will be fifty. I have sat too long. I have relaxed too long, have numbed my senses against my senses. Enough. I walk. It’s who I am, though I forgot for some years. A young man walked through snow drifts, tattered jeans and flat black Chinese shoes through the drifts, he slept in rooms with broken windows beneath a dozen scaveneged cotton sheets. He was porous to the world and it flowed through him, pleasure and pain, and he survived to write this. It is nothing new, and I have been too long away from it.
But there is more. How tempting to simply walk out into the extreme, to reduce all of life down to its elements. There is water, and there is heat, and there is rock, and there are those who are out in it, on two legs or six or none, flying or rooted. What more do I need from life?