A Love Letter to Arizona
Austin Aslan finds rewards within and without upon completing his 800-mile thru-hike of the Arizona National Scenic Trail
I was 10 when I became a man, transitioning from Webelo to Boy Scout after backpacking 6 grueling miles into Oak Creek Canyon’s West Fork, near Sedona. Seven years later, I was at the bottom of the Grand Canyon (perched behind an outhouse) when I asked the sweetheart I would later marry to “go steady” with me.
Early experiences including these led me to believe that I adequately knew the state of my birth, its best trails, and deeply varied backcountry. This past year I challenged my personal horizons by thru-hiking the Arizona National Scenic Trail from Utah to Mexico: traversing 800 miles, two national parks, and more than ten separate mountain ranges. I learned that I had only scratched the surface of Arizona’s sweeping natural beauty and that my state was far more wild and empty than I could ever have imagined.
The solitude that so many hikers seek in the wilderness (sometimes elusive along other National Scenic Trails) became both my greatest prize and my greatest burden. I estimate I encountered fewer than three dozen people recreating along the entirety of the Arizona Trail. I took six days and nights to traverse the 112-mile length of the Mazatzal Mountains, and in all that time I never saw another human soul.
One day, after scrambling through miles of overgrown brush while dangerously low on water, I crested a Mazatzal ridge to face a painted sunset that reminded me of the Arizona flag. The sky was banded with reds and oranges, anchored by a mountainous sea of dark blue, with the Four Peaks Wilderness centered as a distant, pointed star. I scavenged for remnant chips of snow as darkness fell, devouring all that I found.
I was startled half to death when I returned to my sleeping pad and discovered I had interrupted two mating bobcats. Justifiably peeved, they circled me, calling back and forth to each other, an eerie moaning in the darkness that stopped and started for almost an hour.
Meanwhile, my paranoia grew deep. I set up my tent and started a fire—activities for which I had earlier decided I was too exhausted. I tried in vain, late into the night, to call or text my wife. I eventually employed my satellite texting device—for use only in emergencies—to let my family know I ached to have them near.
I miss U guys SO much.
As the miles and days stretched on, I found ample reasons to continue: troops of happy javelinas, scorpions illuminated by blacklight, the gorgeous White Canyon Wilderness—a region of violent uplift and sheer cliff faces that I’d never heard of before. Near the town of Superior, I encountered my personal trail angel: an old Mormon cowboy named Walter who spied me from afar on a hot, cloudless afternoon. He hunted me down and gifted me with a frozen gallon of water and a foot-long sub sandwich.
My final couple of weeks were full of anticipation and nostalgia. I wanted to be home with my family so badly, but I couldn’t imagine giving up on all that I had discovered about Arizona, and about myself. Summiting the Huachucas, at over 9,000 feet, on my last day, was a breeze. I felt 20 years younger, and I had gotten into honest shape.
I slept in a foot of snow my last night, in howling wind. But I had stopped counting the minutes until I would meet my wife and two kids at Coronado National Monument near the finish line. My feet had carried me 795 miles over the course of 60-plus days of solo hiking. I knew the final day and the final miles would carry me easily enough.
How do I describe the emotions I feel each time I crest a dramatic Arizona ridge? How do I capture the impossibly diverse and unbroken landscapes I find laid out below me, from horizon to horizon?
Arizona’s high country, crowned with firs, aspen patches, and the world’s largest stand of ponderosa pine, dives into a shag carpet of juniper-chaparral woodlands. Sedona’s red rocks intermingle with dramatic canyon fissures and endless ribbons of distant purple mountains.
These mesas descend into an alien desert floor, toy soldier-green with bountiful life. Saguaros cover the landscape like stubble on a chiseled jaw. Kingly trees through which you can still see the forest, they stand tall and proud like a desert people.
Lush palo verdes, their bark brightly lime-colored, fill the washes and canyons. The rocky soils hide beneath endless prickly pear, teddy bear cholla, and jojoba. Creosote bushes climb the hills, smelling of rolling thunder and desert rain, and cactuses are in bloom (too early this year), as if the jagged base of the endless mountain ranges are snow-dusting the desert floor with yellows, oranges, and reds.
Close your eyes and imagine for a moment traversing these vistas without a road, utterly alone. Only your two feet pull you forward, over the course of the changing seasons. You have enough time between the endless risings and settings of Arizona’s fiery sun to actually stop and smell the wildflowers and cactus blossoms, and to really taste water in your throat, precious and hard-fought between moments of natural scarcity.
You stand atop a hill and turn and see nothing but nature, resting in silence with a sense of smallness and insignificance. You imagine a planet without us, and dare to ponder your miraculous but minuscule part in the cosmos.
I rendezvoused with my family 1 mile from the Mexico border. My kids regaled me with their praises and their embraces and then ran off to climb rocks.
We trekked the last mile down to the border together and found at the very end of my hike a strange space between worlds, where nothing but a broken and porous barbed-wire fence marked the finish line.
My high school sweetheart wife presented me with a bottle of sparkling wine. We shared a toast, and I thanked her for all the sacrifices she endured to allow me to get here. I sensed not an end, but a beginning. I found myself arriving at a fractal boundary, where the 800 miles I had just walked had felt logarithmic, as trivial and dim as my original 8 two months earlier, in stormy darkness in the dead of night—bringing me quite simply to the trailhead of yet a longer, more arduous journey.
I turned around and looked behind me. I had come 808 miles along a scenic path of ups and downs, zigs and zags, designed and forged by others, one along which many pilgrims have traveled, but that on this day, I could rightfully claim as mine alone. I had discovered that with a bit of vision, hard work, courage, and support, I could surprise myself and that my precious home, so vast and desolate beyond the walls of its hectic cities, still holds surprises in store.