Letter from Arizona: On hiking into winter, and back out, in the Southwest

MinnPost photo by Ron Meador
As for the Oak Creek Canyon snows of Christmas 2014, my chosen adjective will forever be magical.

The snow began falling in the early afternoon on Christmas Day – an unlikely thing in Arizona, even northern Arizona.

It was a peculiar sort of snow to this Midwesterner, granular and rime-like but large, BB size and a bit bigger. It was plentiful, in spurts, and persistent: Though the temperature seemed barely cold enough for snow to even form, it settled heavily on the trail, the trees and on the woolly hats of hikers who seemed universally overjoyed by the experience.

As we made our way up the west fork of Oak Creek, just above Sedona, a steady stream of these came flowing the other way, gesturing gleefully at the swirling whiteness and wishing us a Merry Christmas in the accents of China, India, Japan, Mexico and probably a dozen other countries, not to mention Mississippi.

Soon the snow had coated the narrow ribbon of trail that winds along and back and forth across the creek, making the red osier stems pop with contrast. It settled on the firs and cedars and live oaks in great clumps, in perfect imitation of the flocking we spray on indoor trees to make them look kind of like outdoor trees.

This wasn’t at all what Sallie and I had expected from a Christmas hike in the desert southwest. Like almost everything else about the two weeks we spent knocking around Nevada, Arizona and Utah, from just west of Las Vegas to just east of the Glen Canyon Dam, it was way better.

Later a coffee-shop proprietor in Sedona would ask me if Wisconsin people, like the Eskimos, have lots of different words for snow. I explained that we employ only a few nouns but make up for that deficit with a wide array of adjectives, many of them impolite.

As for the Oak Creek Canyon snows of Christmas 2014, my chosen adjective will forever be magical.

Going west on a whim

It was on a whim, more or less, that Sallie and I packed up our hiking gear and boarded a plane for a rare Christmas away from home.

We thought we’d be passing a couple of weeks in shirtsleeves or light-jacket temperatures, enjoying spectacular views amid light tourist traffic, and on each point we were wrong.

The temps turned out to be unseasonably cool, even mildly wintry in places. That suited us; we’re used to adding or shedding layers as the weather changes, and it was an interestingly different challenge to do this in places where the changes come more with altitude than latitude or even time of day.

The tourists who were charming in Oak Creek Canyon were massively more numerous and often barely tolerable in places like Grand Canyon – where the Christmas-New Year period now brings the heaviest visitation of the year – not only because of their numbers but also their execrable behavior, like chasing after elk and backing their behemoth trucks into xeriscape plantings when paved parking spaces ran short.

(To be clearer: While foreign tourists were majority contributors to the crowding we encountered, their conduct wasn’t objectionable; it was Americans we saw behaving badly, like the family of four throwing rocks to break up the ice curtains formed by the famous seeps on the walls of Zion Canyon.)

As for spectacular views, well, we grossly underestimated the beauty of the Southwest’s canyons, deserts and rocky uplands in winter.

Spring may be a better time to see the desert portions because of all that’s blooming then. But even there winter has to be at least second best, with plenty to see across vast reaches of primordial, ungentled terrain – and in temperatures that won’t threaten to punish exertion with exhaustion.

Grand Canyon: A long way down

A couple of days after hiking Oak Creek I stood with Sallie at the Bright Angel trailhead, looking down into Grand Canyon, searching for the words to tell her there was just no way in hell I could handle the hike that had been a centerpiece of our trip planning.

A paralyzing fear of heights that afflicted me in childhood, but had abated gradually if unevenly  through adulthood, had returned full force. It felt like slow electrocution: My legs and hips and shoulders were seized; my mouth and throat had gone dry; I couldn’t quite feel my feet.

I’d been down a stretch of this trail years earlier, without incident if not without anxiety, but I couldn’t remember much about that day except flattening my back against the wall to let the mule train pass.

On the other hand, I could remember in excruciating detail how I once ascended a fire lookout platform above Lake George, in the Adirondacks, and had to descend by crawling down, backwards, on hands and feet.

But how do you crawl back up one of the most heavily traveled trails in America’s national parks? With other hikers by the hundreds, on this particular day, streaming past?

A view of the Grand Canyon from the hiking trail.
MinnPost photo by Ron Meador
A view of the Grand Canyon from the hiking trail.

Instinctively I ran through all the reassurances about the safety of this trail. It was actually much wider than I remembered (a big plus) but also icy in places (not so good).

Because it descends by a series of benches, the worst-case scenario isn’t falling a mile to the canyon floor, but maybe as little as 10 or 12 feet to the next switchback. …

But fear of heights is not rational, therefore not susceptible to rational challenge. So I squared my shoulders, told Sallie I might have to take it a little slow at the outset, and down the trail we went, one of us admiring the vista and the other very carefully monitoring his boots.

We paused at the first arch to make photos of some pictographs, and it came to me that the answer to this dilemma – as with so many dilemmas these days – was mindfulness, an open and welcoming awareness of this moment in Grand Canyon.

Fear of fear itself

I leaned back against the wall and let my eyes run over the far rim and the walls below. Then I turned my attention to the knot of fear in my gut, noting its size and location and precisely how it felt, tracing its contours … only to find that, huh, it was already shrinking and softening.

We started walking again and with each step it became clearer to me that my fear was not of falling down but of freezing up. Here indeed was fear of fear itself, and revealed in this light it quickly melted away.

We walked down for a couple of hours, then back up, and but for a moment here and there when I went right to an edge or looked straight down into the depths while framing a photograph, I finished the hike without another phobic twinge.

Just before leaving the canyon, I paused to ask a backpacker we’d been following at times about the crampons he’d been using to crunch his way up the icy trail without the slightest slip.

“No, they’re not hard to learn at all, and they’re cheap!” he said. “Sixteen bucks at the military surplus store in my hometown, which is Ely, Minnesota, if you’ve ever happened to hear of it.”

Elyite’s advice to hikers

And so I made the acquaintance of Erwin “Boogie Cat” Laitala, who worked at the Minntac mine before retiring to a life of backpacking in the winter months and performing as “the crazy tie-dyed dancer” at various music fairs and festivals in the winter. He is 63.

Boogie Cat had been out for nine days this trek, covering 80 miles east to west and surviving a near-death plunge down a steep dropoff, rolling to a stop only when his backpack wedged in a space between a pair of huge boulders.

Sallie observed that his right foot seemed to be bothering him and he acknowledged he’d twisted his ankle the first day out, then got the heel full of fine prickly-pear needles, which he couldn’t remove because his kit lacked tweezers.

“But it’s OK now – here, I’ll show you,” he said, unlacing the boot. “I’ve never told anybody this, but the way I protect my feet when I’m out on a long hike is, I duct-tape them! So the tape wears away instead of my skin. Just one little blister on this toe.

“Now I’m going over to Flagstaff to rest up for three days in a modern Motel 6. I always spend the extra five bucks for the modern room because it’s a new bed. I’ll get out my maps and plan the next couple of weeks, and then I’ve got to get back to Ely.

“But isn’t this a great time to be out here?”

* * *

I got so absorbed in talking with Boogie Cat about his adventures, his  gear and his preventive foot care that I neglected to make his picture. But he invited me to look him up online, and you can find his Facebook page here.

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