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Arizona dreamin’

Devils Bridge in Sedona. I received cheers when I bared my scarred chest.

The journey is all we’ve got

When I planned a return trip to Arizona to finish up the 100+ miles I skipped two years ago, I ensured I had plenty of time to get it done.

Not like the thru-hike attempt, when I approached it with a cocksure over-confidence that assumed I’d move with the same fluidity as I had pre- hip replacement and easily rack up 20 mile days.

That plus a thorough lack of knowledge of just how wild, and unforgiving this land is with weather variations to the extremes.

To be fair, I started out well leaving directly from Tucson Airport, marching down to Mexico on ball-bearing loose stones, then right back up to Miller Peak over 9,000 feet. The temperatures dropped to 19 that night, but I was ready with a warm bag and warm clothes.

But those sky islands on repeat took their toll. It’s said the climb vertically passes through unique ecozones equivalent to driving from Mexico yo Canada.

I loved it, I really did. But trying to stick to a 20-mile-per-day schedule was physical as well as emotional suicide. I wasn’t enjoying it and was beginning to wonder why I even wanted to backpack in the first place.

I met Hector in the Oracle Post Office two years ago and he is credited with skipping me past 100 miles to drop me in the Superstition Mountains. To be fair, I entered a wonderland of wildflowers and another series of mountain ranges before waiting out a snowstorm in Strawberry, Arizona just below the Mogollon Rim – and picking up bed bugs – but that’s another story.

I’m different this time. Cancer has a way of changing perspectives and focusing the mind. There was no way I was going to waste my remaining time on this earth worrying about speed or 20-mile days. I was going to savor this journey.

Funny how Hector’s parting words as I started were not simply to savor but to remember the journey is all there is.

Striving, wanting, grasping, dreaming. – these are all part of being a human being. I like planning and looking for the next trail (or project) to explore.

But when our minds become too hyper-focused, we miss the point as well as possible alternatives to our plan that might offer surprising rewards.

So I chuckled when about halfway through my AZT section at Freeman Road, I came across a pergola and a memorial that read:

In Loving Memory of
Gregory Allen Field:
December 20, 1957 – January 22, 2016
Rest. Observe. Savor.
The journey is all we have.

Weavers Needle and Battleship Mountain in the Superstition’s La Barge Canyon. It was the most splendid day before the snowstorms blew in.

Superstition Mountains

Richard was a touch alarmed I had only vague plans once the trail was done. I assured him that I’d reached out to friends to let them know I’d be in the state, and some sort of plan would materialize.

It began by following my gut and taking a ‘zero’ (rest day with zero miles walked) at a trail angel’s home. Edith and I connected immediately over the trail, pets, our love of the Southwest and (to our delighted surprise) our mutual friend, Katlyn. I’m indebted to Edith for allowing me to lounge at her lovely home, wash my clothes and rest my body.

Her home is situated right on the way from the home of a Minnesota snowbird pal named Mark as he drives into the mountains. Once rested, I planned a hike with Mark in one of the most astounding parts of the Superstition Mountains, due east of Mesa.

The AZT passes through the range, but this would be a new discovery: La Barge Canyon. Mark described it to me as “drop dead gorgeous,” and he didn’t exaggerate.

I know Mark from kayaking and biking. Even in his 70’s, he’s outside every day doing something to get his heart rate up. So it should not have come as a surprise that he moved fast and was less than willing to dawdle and take pictures along the way.

The trail rises up steeply to a view of Canyon Lake plus fanciful desert spires including Battleship Mountain and the aptly named Weaver’s Needle. The box canyon below is a riparian wonderland. After a stop at the remains of a miner’s cabin – essentially a springy metal bed – we found shade by water.

Mark is an amateur fine art photographer specializing in nudes in the wild. Those nudes are professional models, but that didn’t stop me from requesting he shoot this nude. I love my oddly flat nipple-free chest but had not yet posed for anyone. To be fair, the best shots were from far away and a selfie I snapped just for the heck of it. I guess my modeling days are a thing of the past!

Holly and me at our magical campsite below Vultee Arch. Rain gave way to two splendid days in this magical red-rock playground.


Six months before my bilateral mastectomy, I gave up drinking. I don’t know if drinking was becoming a serious problem, but the daily cocktail hour had grown to tumblers of poison that couldn’t be doing my body any good.

It was three months into my dry period that I learned the WHO had declared a direct connection between drinking and breast cancer.

Oh shit!

Better late than never, I suppose and no booze ingestion could only help me get through the ordeal. Still, when Mark offered me a dram of 12-year single malt Scotch, I happily accepted.

Happily, the ‘tasting’ did not interfere with an early start. I knew the only way to do any more hiking was to rent a car and get myself to parts of the state the AZT misses. One mentioned to be over and over was Sedona.

Sedona is the Aspen of Arizona. Situated within towering cliffs of red sandstone, it’s an exclusive community that caters to the fabulously wealthy as well as the outdoorsy. To me it’s a bit like the Grand Canyon without the canyon.

I had no idea if I’d get there of not, but did enough research before I left to find a wee backpack trip that would take me into both the seldom visited backcountry as well as the hits.

I invited a friend to join me named Holly ‘Hobbit.’ We hiked up the steep rocky hoodoo-laden Mount Lemmon on my thru-hike and talked non-stop. I figured we’d have the same vibe this time, though hadn’t factored in how out of shape she was.

That first 1,200 foot climb over Sterling Pass about killed her, but she recovered as we lost most of our altitude deep into the canyon. A perfect campsite awaited us at Vultee Arch. The gathering clouds waited until we set our tents to unleash a 15-minute downpour.

The best part of our route was that it offered alternate routes. Holly took a shortcut into Secret Canyon while I climbed into the mossy riparian Bear Sign Canyon lined with sycamores and the whistly rock wren.

It was steep up and over the David Miller Trail, dropping through bright red ramparts to secret canyon. We found a sensational site tucked into the forest with our own private pools and rock ‘bench.’

The crowd at Devils Bridge. They cheered me and slapped my hand when I showed that I am a cancer thriver.

The following day I visited two of the most popular destinations for day hikers while Holly seemed happy enough to just hang out under cloudless skies and ideal temperatures.

I arrived at Devils Bridge early enough for good light and not too long a wait for my picture. The arch reaches out from a platform, as if positioned by a movie set designer.

I was nervous when my turn came to walk out, weak-kneed at the height and wobbly. Another hiker had my camera trained on me and I lifted my arms. half-heartedly.

That’s when I thought, fuck it blurting out, Avert your eyes. I am a cancer thriver! and peeled off my shirt. The entire crowd cheered as cameras snapped and I through my arms in the air in gratitude and acceptance.

When my turn was up and I walked back, not a soul spoke. Maybe they didn’t know what to say. So I said it. Throw your arms in the air in gratitude! And they did, afterwards high-fiving me as I passed by.

I am a thriver because of those hands and the many many others lifting me up and making me brave.

My shirt stayed on as I crawled into Soldier Pass Cave, but again there was lots of camaraderie, good will and laughter. Holly and I met up and hiked out past stunning Brins Mesa then drove through spectacular Oak Creek Canyon past snowy Mount Humphries to her humble trailer on Route 66 in Seligman.

The view from the saddle at Signal Peak. It was wild and wonderful here and a well-kept secret.

Peak bagging in the Kofa Wildlife Refuge

Holly taught me some things like being flexible and how to ‘boondock,’ (camp on public land.) She’s had a rough life and a family that made her feel lesser than. Why on earth a family would do such a thing is anyone’s guess, but her stubbornness and refusal to allow her past to define her is a lesson in resilience.

Hector said to me, “To live is to struggle.” No one is immune to tough times. Some may be luckier, but we all are at risk of getting walloped by bad luck some of the time. I guess that’s why remembering the journey is all we’ve got can help us be more even-keeled when things don’t go as planned.

Another friend I made on my thru-hike of the AZT shared a ‘micro-adventure’ on Instagram. She summited Signal Peak, the highest point in Yuma County, Arizona and shared pictures so beguiling, I knew this far-off place would provide structure to my adventure.

Holly suggested I stay on Route 66, the longest remaining bit of this storied road, before needing to head south. It was scenic on narrow two-lane highway carpeted with wildflowers. Oftentimes, the views were expansive, though the road to Oatman – where bikers and burrows crowded the road – snaked along at 15 mph.

Aquamarine Lake Havasu was an overcrowded oasis, the actual London Bridge packed with spring breakers. I was happy to make my own break to at last arrive at the jagged Kofa Mountains rising 3,000 feet above the desert floor south of Quartzsite.

I was warned the seven-mile dirt road would be very slow going and I prepared myself to camp along it and walk to Signal Peak’s trailhead. But it was easier than I thought and I still had plenty of light.

Wisely, I stopped at the base of the mountain, parking next to a couple in a fancy, modern-day teardrop. When I say ‘next to’ I mean 100 feet away, hardly crowding. We actually enjoyed each other’s company as the sun put on a show and the nearly full moon rose.

I was so taken by the drama, I stepped directly on a cholla. My screams brought the man of the couple over with a stool and pliers. He told me to scream again as he wrenched it out. No real harm, just a few drops of blood.

Roadside attractions in Oatman on the drive to Kofa.

I was up early to start my hike, two miles of rocky road then two miles and 2,600 feet straight up. A photographer gave me a lift, so my energy was saved for the steep and otherworldly ascent. The spires in the rarified air looked like fairytale castles and I spied my first cacti bloom of the trip.

All alone and feeling strong, my climb of Signal Peak did not disappoint. It was here that I learned snow and cold temperatures had moved in, making the AZT a hard slog. I had timed it just right and this far southwest kept me out of the storms.

I explored the saddle to get closer to the spires, then eventually descended very carefully on ballbearing pebbles. Near the bottom I met a man who was incredulous of my climb.

I may be a girl and approaching 60 but I can still do this thing, pal!

I met a group of twenty young backpackers from a local university with heavy packs at my car then drove back out as slowly as I came in.

Organ Pipe Cactus

The photographer who gave me a rode was chasing wildflowers. When I asked where he suggested I go next, he named the Ajo Mountains in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.

Are the cactus blooming?!

I needed to go and see.

Last night, I folded down the seats and slept in the car. The same would happen tonight in another wildlife refuge called Cabeza Prieta. But as I got closer to Ajo, it became obvious the town was surrounded by public land.

I drove through a rainstorm unlike any I’d experienced in the midwest – fast and heaven, flooding the road, then curtains above the ground, a rainbow plastered on.

I found a site off a gravel road amidst saguaro just as the sun set and an even closer-to-full moon rose in the clearing sky. Stars came out, but rain continued to splash the car as I slept until the moon set in a faded magenta.

It was time to pursue organ pipes.

This cactus grows abundantly in Mexico but only sneaks into the US at this small mountain range. Their beautiful, and healthy after so much rain, red and glistening like ripe fruit at the top.

My last hikes of this journey were off the Ajo Mountain Drive. As is often the case, I seem to link up with other solo hikers like merging traffic without much discussion.

Such was the case with Teri. We scrambled up the wrong way on rocks which afforded a good perch for photos if not the destination. Soon we found cairns and climbed through a narrow canyon to a small ‘window.’

We met again on the second trail through a cacti forest then again up and up to ravishing views and blooming cacti. I love hiking alone, sauntering, stopping, thinking, talking out problems. Yet it can be fun to share the space too and see it through another person’s eyes.

The view from my boondock as the storm clouds and cacti were lit up by a setting sun and the moon rose.

Return to Oracle

My plan was to keep up the boondocking, but as I moved west towards Tucson, the weather looked bad and I didn’t want to get stuck somewhere and miss my flight. So I called up Hector to see if he wanted my company again.

And he was free!

But where will we watch the real full moon rise?

Turns out this lovely man who is the uncle I always wished I’d had is just as goofy about full moon rises as me. He invited me back to his house perched on the side of now even snowier Mount Lemmon.

We waited and waited in the cold and damp as the clouds lit up in silver filigree, and I chattered on about all my adventures since we last met at the start.

He loved that‘the journey is all we’ve got’ followed me on my trail and that I explored some of his favorite Arizona haunts. He loved that I whipped off my top on Devils Bridge and bared my scarred chest to the crowd. He loved that I found my cactus blooms and good weather.

When the moon finally appeared golden and seemingly lit from within, he had one more aphorism for me.

Don’t let the old man in. Do whatever it takes to stay young and not let life break you.

I guess that’s exactly what I did. Cancer wasn’t the end of the story. Neither was my aging body or any of the other inevitable struggles I’ve endured. I’m all in on this journey and taking each blissful step to wherever it leads. Life is good and this one I’ve got suits me just fine.

And with that, we went inside and made a pizza and ate it.

This is the body of a cancer thriver.

8 Responses

  1. This story of your trail is, for me, the most beautiful and inspiring. And the scenery – I remember moving from New York to California when i was nine years old and seeing Zion National Park for the first time – all that red rock, along with purples and yellows. This Arizona trail brings it back. Your photos of the wildflowers, cacti, and succulents are exquisite, and the thoughts that you share are helpful to anyone who reads this. Thank you.

  2. This is such a beautiful piece of writing. I was feeling tired and whiney after a red eye out to the PNW. Your writing and thoughts lifted me so far above the niggling complications of life. It is soo the journey, the process, the every experience that is THE thing. Love you, my friend! And your stunning photos fill my heart.

    1. oh, lady, I have SO been there! Glad this helped and excited for you out in the PNW. Look forward to hanging out in the Northwoods again. Love you, my friend! alison

  3. always makes me grateful for you and your storytelling…the photos are marvelous…impressed with the far off shots of you and must be taken by hiking mates???

    At 75 I just skied my last Birkie (43) unless I change my mind…fell 5 times and don’t want to risk injury with aging body.

    Your hiking adventures entice me greatly but climate work keeps me home and at the State Capital with Elders Climate Action and AARP and DC with CCL (Citizens’ Climate Lobby)
    If you are back in MN in April come to our Earth Day Celebration at Weber Park, Edina Sunday 4/21 Noon to 4 pm and join the fun…

    you are inspirational, courageous and still so young….this summer it’s Nova Scotia after our DC conference (June 8-11) with our EV adventure thru Canada and visiting old friends from PC days in Borneo.

    hike on in your one wild life!!

    1. Oh my goddess, Paul. FORTY-THREE Birkies! You impress, my friend. And as Hector so rightly put it, you haven’t let the old man in. 🙂

      The far off pix were taken by other tourists. In fact it was quite a moment disrobing at the last second for the bare chest shot. I was deeply touched by the sheering and then slapping of hands when I returned. At the cave, I took pictures of others and they of me and we “air dropped” on site. Kinda crazy how slick everything is these days. One gal told me exactly where to stand from instructions posted to Instagram!

      I am sett8ing my feet on the AT in Georgia mid-April and walking just as far as I like (could be a few days of rain kick me off haha) I really want to see the beuatiful start at Springer plus visit a gal pal. Enjoy your amazing adventures. Borneo WOW!

  4. I admire your honesty and “in your face” approach to being a cancer thrive. I had a friend who also had a double mastectomy. She loved floating in her pool sans top! We loved her for that. Keep thriving, showing the world what women can do.

    1. I did warn everyone to avert their eyes, but honestly, my bare chest is so empty of anything verging on sexy or lurid. In fact the scars are lovely. Yay Dr. Ogren! I am totally going to copy your friend. My silly champagne flutes were saggy and uneven anyway haha!

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