The most affecting place in my life has been Camelback Mountain in Phoenix, Arizona. One year I hiked—well it was more like breathily walked—up that 2700 feet elevation of humped hill the Phoenicians call a mountain.
I was fresh off a divorce, and I was at that place in the aftermath where I began to process events in my life as new beginnings. I had a sense of optimism towards a fresh start. I was looking for signs and omens, portents of a visceral change in my being, in my personage, in the essence of ‘me’.
In short, I hated the way I was and thought a new me might be the way to go.
That was one reason why I hiked Camelback. I had come to visit a friend who was working in Real Estate there. He was working on this particular day and we had planned some nightlife action for after his workday was over. We also had planned a road trip to Bryce and Zion Canyon for the weekend, so this morning and afternoon were mine to spend, waste or cherish.
I was enjoying the dry heat of the desert and had thought little of preparations; after all, I was in the best shape of my life thanks to the discipline of karate. Slowly I was regaining confidence. The vivisection of betrayal and sudden separation from a person whom I thought had loved me had effectively sliced that attribute from my personality, but the wound was scabbing over.
I set off, physically armed with ordinary running shoes, outdated shorts, an Orioles ball cap and a small bottle of water. Mentally, I was fortified by the New Age ideas to which I had recently subscribed—I thought they were true-isms at the time—thus was alert to any external manifestations of spiritual interventions, omens and signs.
I walked along the dusty concrete sidewalks, observing all the things of nature as they interacted with man’s presence. I hadn’t gone but a mile before I felt a nagging pain in my right foot like a small pebble had lodged under my arch. Every step caused ever-increasing stabs of pain. I pondered: had this occurred to make me focus on myself, on my own comfort by stopping and removing the stone? On the other hand, was it serving to help me see the value of overcoming small obstacles in the quest to the bigger goal, simply by leaving it in my shoe?
I stopped walking and looked down at my foot, to see that I had almost stepped on the squashed carcass of some sort of small snake. A faint odour of decay arose from its scaly desiccated body.
I left the pebble in my shoe. Clearly, it existed to clarify the reality of life and death and pain.
Walking once more, I tried to take in my surroundings: the warm dry kiss of the wind, the buzz of insect life, the thirsty brown landscape, but it wasn’t long before all I could think about was the pain in my foot.
Far from helping me to focus my mind, to existentially reach for my goal, the stone simply became more irritating to me in this reality, to the point where I could only think of my next step.
Wait … was that the intent: one step at a time takes you to the end of your journey?
Satisfied that I had discovered the true meaning behind the pebble, I carried on until, soon limping heavily, I came to a small bridge over the Arizona canal. The canal was a concrete sluiceway the city had built for flood control—an unpleasant fact of life seemingly incongruent with the desert setting—and provided irrigation sources for the residential and commercial subdivisions that had sprung up. Here I rested with my arms folded over the blue steel railing and right foot up on the bottom rung, searching the brown water as it rushed fervently below the span in its own little journey of discovery.
The sun’s heat burned the back of my neck, so I turned the ball cap backwards to afford some protection. I hadn’t thought about using sunscreen. Where I lived in the Pacific Northwest rainforest climate, the sun never shone so intensely and there was plenty of shade from tall lush trees. Here, trees were short and more like brambly bushes. The only real shade was in the city itself where there were some taller buildings to provide angled shadows of relief. The sun was relentless, even in the late spring. During the summer, my friend told me, people did not spend much time outside unless it was at poolside.
I understood that now.
The mangled mass of a large dead bird floated into my view from beneath the bridge. I did not know what kind of bird it had been, but it was the size of a raven or bigger; perhaps, it had been an eagle. Its feathers were bedraggled and sticking up at all angles. The eyes were gone completely from above a hooked yellow beak. I watched it in silence as it caromed off a log—also caught in the maelstrom—and spun lazily into the distance.
I pondered. This carcass had once been a proud raptor, circling far above the earth, oblivious and uncaring of the humans scurrying frenetically below. This had been a king of the air. Now it was at the mercy of the river current. Now it was food for fish, crabs, eels, and whatever else lived in the waters, above which it had once soared. It had been high, now death had brought it down low.
I, too, had been master of my own little kingdom. At 25 years old, I had been in a loving relationship, fit and strong, both physically and mentally; ready to take on the world. I had been soaring high in my own ego.
Now I was floating aimlessly at the mercy of the currents of life. Others had control over my life. My employers had plans for me, my friends had suggestions and my family had guidance. Traveling to Scottsdale had been the first proactive decision I had made since the separation.
I took a deep breath, and let it out slowly through my nose, as I had learned from self-hypnosis tapes, and tried to focus on nothing, clearing my mind. The images of the dead snake and the dead bird surfaced onto the empty black board I had set up in my imagination. Accompanying the images was a sentence written in mind-chalk: “There will be 3!”
I considered that for a minute.
Certainly, both good things and bad things could descend in 3’s according to all clichés and old wives tales as well as water cooler talk. However, did I really believe that? And of what significance was the fact that these things were dead animals? Did it mean that my former life was dead to me? That I was dead to my former wife? That the third dead thing would be me? Alternatively, was the pebble in my shoe the first of the three, instead of simply an irritant between two portents?
The cooling of the layer of sweat by an arid wind blowing in my face made me shiver unexpectedly. I mustered up a wry smile, chastising myself for being an over-thinking idiot. I decided that the hot breeze was actually welcome, and took a rejuvenating swig of water. Took my foot off the rung, bent over, undid my sneaker to shake out the annoying stone. Except that it wasn’t a rock or a pebble that rolled out of the shoe … it was a mung bean.
I had taken to sprouting my own vegetable seeds. Mung beans were a staple of Chinese food of which I was very fond. Perhaps not so surprising then, that one might fall unnoticed into my running shoe, and make the flight to Arizona with me. As delicious as the sprouts were, their mother bean in my shoe had been truly annoying. Plus, I had brought a non-native plant to Arizona. I was now a mung bean smuggler.
My search for meaning was devolving into farce.
I set off again, alternating between the discomfort of baking in the sun and the worship of its cleansing heat. I was increasingly thankful for my water, as dust clouds were churned up by passing cars and gusting wind, and my mouth dried out.
The base of Camelback mountain had plenty of warning signs for errant hikers and foolish tourists, of which I was both so I read them carefully, cognizant of the fact that it was too late to do anything about it, but fascinated with the idea of a mere hike turning into a death-defying feat.
I headed up the first incline.
Soon I was in one-foot-in-front-of-another mode—a Zen-like state came over me. My fevered brain spiraled down into three thoughts caught in a loop: Would I reach the top? Would I make it back down? Why had I done this?
There came a break; a flat section between two inclines, where a massive rock wall overhung the trail and afforded a shaded stone bench back from the fenced edge of the path. I sat, drank some water and stilled my rising fear by looking about me and noting minutiae: a tiny tumbleweed rolling across a scarred vermilion rock, a piece of molted snake skin, a black hole in a thorny green cactus.
The spectacular view over the valley distracted me.
I noticed the relative silence. There were few hikers at this time of the day. (Another of the warnings on the signs at the head of the trail had stated it was best not to hike in the afternoon hours.) The noise of the bustling humanity in the valley below dissipated long before it reached this height. In the desert, the perpetual hum you hear comes from the wind and animal life, not cars and electricity. The thrumming undercurrent vibrates with life.
I had sought to attain some sort of peace; in truth, I found it even more distracting to be amongst such beauty and energy. Would I have to go into a sensory deprivation chamber to find true peace and happiness?
Pushing myself up to continue my hike, I discovered that my inappropriate apparel choices had chafed my thighs, butt and ankles.
Ten minutes later, I hobbled onto another small plateau, surprisingly populated by larger bushes and thicker scrub. As I stopped to take a small swig of water, I froze as a healthy looking fox came into view, trotting up along a trail only it could see near the edge of the plateau.
The fox froze as soon as it became aware of my presence either by smell or by sight.
The tableau was set: a gray fox versus a very red human on the plateau of a mountain at high noon.
The fox looked straight at me. I decided it was a male for some reason. He lowered his head, and then raised it back up. Then began a dance. Head down, then up. Down, up, repeat. Bobbing time and time again. As his reluctant partner, I stayed still, not wanting to scare him away, attempting to memorize every detail of his beauty.
Too small to be a coyote, the animal wore a light gray coat shot with ruddy fur highlights on his ears and neck. His long bushy tail, which was black-tipped and had a dark streak all along the top stood fully erect and curved like a sail behind him. The wind blew the tips of his fur back and forth in a gentle rhythmic unison, like closely planted wheat on a prairie. His furry ears pointed straight up when his head was at its zenith and laid down towards his back when his head was at its lowest. Bob up, sink down. Ears up, ears back.
I assumed he was reading the wind, catching all the scents and sounds, trying to determine if I was enemy or food.
I felt as cooked as food might be.
Apparently, the fox disagreed, as he whipped his tail down and trotted off, quite unconcerned.
Had the fox been sent as the second warning? Third warning? I had lost count of the portents. Should I count the dead things or only the live things? What did it mean that a fox had visited me? Many cultures knew the fox as a trickster. If someone outfoxed you, it meant she had outwitted you. Had I made wrong choices already … again? Should I be wary of future tricksters, another devious woman, perhaps?
Shaking my head, I closed my eyes. Felt the heat on my eyelids, my face, and my neck. Trickles of sweat ran down my back and pooled in crevasses. Should I keep going or head back?
I opened my eyes to yet another sign from nature transfixing me.
A small green lizard lay on a rock formation in front of my face. It was staring directly at me, its small pointed hood splayed out against its shoulders and its leathery skin looking dry but somehow cool. The bulging eyes glared without blinking. Its tail curled behind it in the shape of an ‘S’.
I was mesmerized as it began the same ritual that the fox had danced seconds earlier. Head down, hood back, tongue flick. Head up, hood splayed out, tongue flick. Down, up, repeat. Bobbing time and time again.
This time I made the first move, by resolutely turning around and retracing my path down the mountain.
About halfway down, I met a tall stringy man with a curly mop of hair running up the trail. In the full heat of the sun in the middle of the day.
“G’day, mate … crikey, don’t you look half-knackered? Hows about some water, then?” An Australian … of course. Crazy enough and already used to the heat in any case. He held out a bottle.
I accepted his offering with gratitude. It was cold and divine. He motioned that I should keep the bottle, grinned and bobbed his head and resumed his upward run.
As I limped out onto the road, not looking forward to the long trek back to my friend’s house, a taxi drove up and turned around right in front of me, as if on cue.
This was a sign. The only one actually sent to me; I had no doubt.
I hailed the cab, collapsed on the back seat in air-conditioned comfort, and directed the driver to my friend’s address.