Picketpost Mountain

I turned off the divided highway and headed down a road.  The asphalt disappeared  after a couple hundred feet.  Dust spun from the rental car tires, clouding the rearview.  I passed a cattle grate and then a sign that cattle could be in the roadway, although I didn’t see any.  A few more bends in the road, turns on unmarked roads, then I pulled into a small parking area.   When I got out of the car, I felt more trepidation than the previous day.  This was big.  I was nowhere.

I passed Picketpost Mountain on the way to Globe the previous afternoon.  It sat quietly on the horizon.  In the morning, I considered what to do in the area before heading south.  There was a local historical museum, some archaeological ruins, a town park trail, but I felt too squirrelly for any of those.  I wanted something bigger.  That was when I remembered Picketpost.

At least once a trip, I do something that pushes the boundaries of my abilities.  This was one of those.  The internet called the trail “moderately difficult.”  There were steep parts, the trail was not maintained, you had to look for piles of stones or the occasional spray-painted arrow to know which way to go, etc.

I told myself that however far I got would be a victory, that I might not make it to the summit, and that I needed to be okay if that happened.  For someone who is wired for more (more elevation, more challenge, more cake, just generally more), this is no small endeavor.

I saw 3 people the entire hike. I passed the first one within about 10 minutes of setting out. He had an Arizona State shirt on and appeared to be in his mid-twenties.  I asked if he’d made it to the top. He said no, he was coming from a different direction and I was the first person he’d seen in about 13 miles.  He was remarkably pleasant given this fact.

I continued along, keeping an eye on the trail.  I started the slow rise toward the mountain.  I was heading along fine until I realized I was no longer on the trail.  It happened that quickly.  I was in a ravine.  I followed the bits of trodden grass – someone else had made the same wrong turn that I had –  and climbed.  I considered that this may be where I needed to turn around but it was a steep grade and I did not want to risk falling downhill.   I have been this lost before.  I have to remind myself to breathe deeply, to calm the panic rising in my throat.

It was then that I saw the second person.  He was about 20 feet above me.  He waved.  I waved back.  He didn’t say anything, but simply seeing him showed me where I needed to climb to get out of the ravine.  I continued, angling up to where he had been standing.  By the time I got to that point, he and the woman he was with had started back down.  This was also fortunate because it showed me the right path downhill.  I wondered if they had seen me lose the trail. I was grateful for their wordless help.

I continued up.  From there, the way was steeper, with larger sheets of rocks, some boulders.  At points, I was on all fours, walking uphill.  My mind cleared of its usual clatter.  I was conscious of where each of my limbs was and needed to go.  I calmly focused on placing my left hand in a visible spot, then my right foot, threading slowly up the mountain.  I would climb a little way and then look around for a stack of rocks, a faint arrow, some informal marker to confirm my route.

I made it to the base of the sheer part of the mountain. The trail had been thinning for a while and finally it evaporated.  I might have been able to poke around, uncover the trail, and continue the ascent.  The summit was only a couple hundred feet higher.  This was the point of the hike I had been reminding myself about. I was in the sun, it was the middle of the afternoon, and I was beginning to roast in the heat.  I found a shrub with a little shade, sat down, then took off my boots and socks to dry them out.

There was a lot to take in.  Fingers of stretching mountains and hills, their spines along the horizon, the highway in the distance, cars reflecting in the afternoon sun, the rocks above me.  I ate a banana.

There were fewer birds at this height. I heard the caw of a crow and then saw a bird gliding on the air below me.  It soared like a larger bird and I didn’t connect it to the sound until it was closer to me and cawed again.  It rose and flew silently over the mountain.

This was spectacular, and a sign to start back down.  The descent was also a challenge.  It required walking backwards down most of the top third of the mountain.  Again, slow going, one limb moving at a time.

At a landing, I climbed up into a shady nook of a rock.  This was about the place where I had seen the couple.  From here, the trail would become a little less difficult.  I was facing the way I came from, appreciating the view.  I caught my breath for a few minutes, rested, listened to crickets, birds, grasshoppers.  The crow was again visible; it soared over the mountaintop.

Desert birds flit frequently and are easily camouflaged in shrubs.  I don’t put a lot of energy into watching them because they are so hard to see.  I celebrate the glimpses of wing, the hint of motion, the chatter.  But one I did see clearly.  It wound through a series of tight turns before it flew toward me and around the rock I was sitting on.  Its wings thundered by, slicing the air.  I can still hear the sound.




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