When I was in the Boy Scouts, my parents placed me in a troop whose motto was “have pack, will travel.” Though there were more hikes than I currently recall, two remain burned in memory: a trek through the cool pines of the Mazatzal Mountains north of Phoenix – I still can see the spring-fed water fountain on the trail – and a May excursion through the bowels of hell, otherwise known as the Butterfield Trail east of Gila Bend.
For those unfamiliar with Arizona geography, east of Gila Bend translates roughly in the middle of the desert with no civilization anywhere to be found. It’s the kind of place that makes the middle of nowhere feel like Times Square. And it was May. In Arizona. What I remember most of this trip is one heavier-set troop member dropping his backpack for the fathers to pick up in the following truck. And then taking off his shirt. And then his pants. At that point, he was brought into the truck.
Oh, and yes, the air-conditioned truck from which my father rolled up, rolled down the window to ask if I was okay, in turn blasting me with deliciously frigid 68-degree freon-chilled air, then rolled the window back up and left me to choke on the dust kicked up from the tires as I continued my march into Hades.
Moving forward, in my sophomore year I was on a field trip to the Grand Canyon. Working down the Bright Angel trail, I got down to Plateau Point. I would have continued on to the Colorado but I already was being lapped by classmates who had gone to the river and were on their way back up. Part of me wishes I’d been able to touch the Colorado. Barring an escalator, I won’t ever be doing it.
Fast forward to nine years ago when co-workers talked me into joining them at Thunderbird Conservation Park. As a reporter in the early 90s, I scaled the mountain twice while covering cross-country meets, coming in from the east side. I weighed about 220 at the time. When I went up the slightly smaller hill in 2007 I weighed about 320. After a few trips up and down the hill, I stopped going and then life – and a double-valve repair, got in the way.
Perhaps it was the challenges I’ve faced over the past couple of months at work. Maybe it was the constant stress of maintaining a real estate business when my interest has waned a bit. Or maybe it was the idea of turning 47 and realizing that there’s still more than enough time to strive to accomplish the things that I want to accomplish, not a mid-life crisis per se but a desire to not settle. And since there’s no chance I’ll be accepted on Naked and Afraid (my estimate is I’d make it about two hours), the hill has been calling to me.
The hill, at the end of the Sunrise trail in Thunderbird Conservation Park, probably doesn’t look like much. And compared to the other mountains typically scaled here in the Valley – North Mountain, Piestewa Peak, South Mountain, Camelback – it’s not much. Just a 300-foot-plus high hill at the end of a white diamond trail (I learned today this means moderate difficulty) on the north side of Glendale.
Of course, it’s summit represented quite a bit more to me.
At this point, I’m well above that 320 from nine years ago. More sadly, I’m also above the weight I was when the combination of the failing and leaking vales led to congestive heart failure which caused me to swell like a balloon. Most likely, someone who abhors taking stairs when it can be avoided probably has no business taking on a moderately difficult trail up a hill of any size. But I’m also in position where I need to gently test my physical limits because I am fighting like hell against giving in and going for gastric bypass surgery or a lap band or whatever else is out there. I still believe – I need to believe – that I am in control of myself.
But … but. I’ve done this one before. If I could do it a few times before …
As for the timing … I’ve been mulling this in my head for quite some time before deciding last night that today, with the cooler-than-recent temperatures early in the morning, would be the moment. When I arrived at the Hedgpeth Hills, it was 86 degrees – which feels incredible in Arizona after days in the high 100s – and, more importantly, the sun was hidden behind lingering rain clouds high on the eastern horizon. This was, without a doubt, the best moment I’d find in the next three months.
First, though, I needed to take care of the extremely important business of collecting three Pokeballs from the Pokestop at the ramada at the base of the hill. Then and only them would it be time to begin the ascent.
As you can see in the photo to the left, the trail starts with a brief patch of macadam before turning into more typical dirt and gravel. Shortly after beginning the trail, there’s a right-hand turn that gives you a lovely view of one of Glendale’s water treatment facilities. More importantly, coming only a couple of minutes into the hike, that spot gives you an idea of just how quickly you gain elevation on the Sunset trail (see photo on the right).
This trail reminds me a lot of Space Mountain as there seem to be multiple opportunities to change your mind on the way to the summit, in addition to the obvious option of simply turning around and heading back to the car. There are two different crossroads on the way up. One points you toward the longer, less steep trail around the north side of the hills. As you move further, there’s another alternative where you can take a right turn and walk down slightly before a gentle rise takes you to a different hill (on the right-hand photo, it’s the one on the left edge of the frame.)
A smart person probably goes toward the blue square and Ridgeline for what would probably end up being about a 40-minute hike up and down, at least based on my personal snail’s pace. I considered it for about a minute while I caught be breath – if you look at the homes in the distance on the lower left photo, you can see I already had accomplished quite a bit.
But, at the end of the day, I’m probably not all that bright. Besides, I already has halfway up the hill I already had decided that I was going to scale, so bugging out to the easier path didn’t hold much interest.
I mentioned my snail’s pace. I found myself often moving to the right and/or stopping to accommodate those who were simply faster, not to mention the lunatics who seem to insist on running up and down the hill or who are riding their bikes up and down the hill. More than once I saw a dog and their owner making their way back down and thought of my own menagerie – a terrier who might love it, a beagle who would flop down on the ground and wait for me from the bottom and the third who, despite a gimpy knee, might actually try.
There’s one final choice to make on this hill, one that isn’t officially noted with a sign but you really don’t need one. Just below the summit there are two possible directions to go. To the right is the sloping yet still moderately difficult trail to the top. To the left, is what feels like a goat trail that also feels like it’s going straight up even though the incline can’t be more than about 20 degrees as it takes you up the last 50 feet or so. I would show you a photo but I was busy panting and questioning my decision making.
With legs that had gone from burning to heavy to essentially numb, pausing twice along the way, I made my way up the stair-like trail until, finally, mercifully, I was here …
You almost have to click on the link to do the view justice. Down the middle of the panoramic photo are the Estrellas, getting covered with light rain. On the right center are the White Tanks west of town. And in front of me was Glendale Arizona. Nearly all of Glendale Arizona, stretching out as far as the eye could see.
The thing is, I’d seen this view before. Nine years ago. It’s not like I suddenly forgot what it was like to stand on the top of this 1,640-foot mountain and take a look around.
But this time, honestly, it meant so much more. Because now I realize just how incredible it was for me to do. And maybe, just maybe, the realization of what’s possible will help in more areas than one.