Trail Tale

Tom ZoellnerMay 1, 2023
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In this exclusive excerpt from his new adventure memoir Rim to River: Looking into the Heart of Arizona, longtime Valley journalist Tom Zoellner paints an evocative portrait of the Arizona Trail as it wends from the Grand Canyon across the Mogollon Rim. Read it and taste the magic of the high country.

By Tom Zoellner | Illustrations by Eric Cox

Five days into his journey hiking the entire length of the state, the author finds himself on the cusp of the Grand Canyon’s fabled North Rim, where he picks up the narrative.

The Arizona Trail starts at a sandstone obelisk at an out-of-the-way campground at the Utah border. I would be hiking across the Kaibab Plateau, down and out of the Grand Canyon, past the cinder cone of Humphreys Peak, across Anderson Mesa, down the Mogollon Rim, through the Mazatzals and the Superstitions, across the Black Hills of Pinal County and then up and over four major ranges in succession: the Catalinas, the Rincons, the Santa Ritas and the Huachucas to the Mexican border.

I climbed to the top of the ridge above the trailhead and saw classic Colorado Plateau country: chocolate- and pink-colored sandstone, junipers, sagebrush, rabbitbrush and small stands of piñons, through which the sun cast long shadows before disappearing.

When I make it to the northern boundary of Grand Canyon National Park, I have been walking for four days and have spoken to not a single other human being. Off a spur is a spindly fire tower once manned by seasonal ranger Edward Abbey, who wrote blistering essays about man’s encroachment on the environment when he should have been looking for wildfires on the horizon. The trail cuts out of the woods down a slope and goes past the booth at the highway, where a ranger in a green uniform is taking fees through car windows and seems confused by a man on foot.

A 5-mile slog down old wagon roads takes me to the edge of North Rim Village, a pleasant collection of dark stone lodge buildings run by a hospitality company called Forever Resorts. On the deck, a mélange of visitors from Europe and Asia watches as the sun sets over the immensity below. “It’s surreal,” murmurs a retired Navy officer from Georgia. “Why even bother photographing it?” wonders another visitor out loud. “It will never show what it’s really like.” They were only echoing a certain hopelessness that comes over the viewer upon gazing at the chasm, which overwhelms the optic nerve with texture and depth. I slept that night overlooking an assembly of spires in the moonlight: Deva Temple, Brahma Temple and Zoroaster Temple.

The best Grand Canyon mornings start in the dark. But I slept in and missed the sunrise and set off down through the sandstone layers and into the dazzling gash in the earth at about 10 a.m. The trail itself was coated with a powder of atomized dung, decades worth of it. The mules step in the waste of their forefathers. The foul dust lasts all the way to Supai Tunnel, a narrow dark passage blasted out of the wall in the 1920s, and it’s not far from here to the hydrological cannon of Roaring Springs, in which the waters that soon form the bulk of Bright Angel Creek come pouring out of the canyon wall via multiple little waterfalls at a rate of 400 gallons a minute.

Maroon walls tower upward. I’m now close to a vertical mile from the rim – a mountain inverted – and it seems beyond the ability of the mind to process how the ancestor of this little stream could have pounded this magnificent channel into existence. I lower my face to Bright Angel Creek, take in long draughts, and let the chilly water run down my face. I pick up a bulbous fruit from a prickly pear and devour the ruby treasure in two bites.

The Grand Canyon gets quiet in the early afternoon as the temperature peaks; there is no birdsong; and Bright Angel Creek narrows into a channel through obsidian cliffs as it gets closer to the Colorado. From the rim, the tops of these walls are but one wave in the stony sea of color and depth.

I eat dehydrated food at a campsite in the heart of the canyon in the company of a family from small-town Ohio, a retired lawyer and his wife, plus their son and daughter-in-law, as the stone around us grows dark and we listen to the trickle of the creek. “You can’t perceive this when you’re in it,” says the wife, gesturing all around.

The next morning, I kneel at a certain spot on the south bank of the Inner Gorge for the first time in 16 years. I had been here on what was supposed to have been my wedding day. That engagement had fallen apart a few months before the intended date, and she had declined to move with me to Arizona. I didn’t want to spend the day of ghost matrimony sitting in my apartment in Phoenix feeling sorry for myself. So, I came here to the cleft of some of the oldest stone on the planet and marched 5 miles down to the river on a broiling hot day, wondering what would become of me.

Inner Gorge: Was there ever a more evocative phrase? Our personal histories invariably merge with the land; we put our tiny marks on the rocks, and they wash away in the next rain.

“The living of life, any life, involves great and private pain, much of which we share with no one,” Barry Lopez wrote in an essay about this part of the river. “In such places as the Inner Gorge, the pain trails away from us. It is not so quiet or so removed that you can hear yourself think, that you would even wish to; that comes later. You can hear your heart beat. That comes first.”

I like to think of this spot near Bright Angel Creek in the depths of Arizona as “mine” because of that private pain, though of course it is not. Innumerable caravans have passed here, both on foot and on water. In a few dozen or hundred years, this beach of rock and sand likely won’t even be here, erased by the relentless river.

On August 17, 1869, John Wesley Powell and his corps camped near here. The crew had lost a crate of food in the rapids and had searched for wood to make replacement oars. They got lucky, chancing on a pine log that had floated down the river from the plateau. “On the way, it must have passed over many cataracts and falls,” wrote Powell, “for it bears scars in evidence of the rough usage which it has received.”

The Bright Angel Trail goes upward, past the site of Indian Gardens, and then starts a more relentless ascent through a fault-line crack. The crowds of tourists grow thicker as I get closer to the top, and my large backpack becomes more conspicuous. I stagger through switchbacks, and by 1 p.m. I gain the South Rim and announce my arrival to nobody in particular by thunking my one good trekking stick down on the sidewalk on the spot where a tollbooth used to stand; hikers used to be charged $1 to make the descent.

Fire roads take me through valleys of granite and past the fire tower at Grandview, built in 1936. From the top of it, I can see the red smudge of Western Navajoland once again, a maze of red walls and canyons. And then the trail picks up the path of an 1890s stagecoach line for a two-day march across undulating ranchlands toward the triangle of Humphreys Peak: an unmissable Mount Doom, the tallest mountain in Arizona; the remnant of a volcano that last erupted 2.8 million years ago.

I stop to smoke a cigar near the stony remains of the stage station at Moqui Springs, and stare at the nearly perfect triangular peak.

Surveyors had named this remarkable mountain for the Civil War general Andrew Atkinson Humphrey, denying it the traditional Diné name of Dook’o’oslid, or Shining on Top. The snowcapped pinnacle is the home of Abalone Shell Woman, the lunar deity, who went there after the first man and woman affixed the highest elevations with a sunbeam and made it shine with yellow twilight. Though I’ve been walking toward it all day, it seems to retreat before me. “The strong white shell is standing out,” goes a traditional Diné chant about the mountain. “A living mountain is standing out.”

I camp near the base of a cinder cone named Missouri Bill Hill and climb to the top for a view the next morning. Dook’o’oslid has crept closer; the white shell of snow on its crest looks cool and inviting. Another day of walking takes me up a broad slope into alpine forests dotted with aspen and green moss growing on the rocks. The only people I’ve seen for days have been elk hunters bouncing down dirt roads in pickup trucks. Now comes a young woman jogging past me engaged in a cell phone conversation about a sales quota; a sign of approach to the city of Flagstaff, even still inside the kingdom of pines spilling down from the tops of Dook’o’oslid.

In these lava-tossed regions of Arizona, with all its frozen magma humps, perhaps it is easier than other places to understand that the land is indeed moving imperceptibly, like colors on the spectrum of light that cannot be perceived by the human optical nerve, and that our brief lives unfold in the still-frame of a lengthy geological movie whose plot we don’t get to enjoy. “What disorients most of us without formal geologic training is grappling with time,” wrote the naturalist David Yetman. “The vastness of the past is upsetting and incomprehensible on the face of it.”

When I was a boy in summer camp in the White Mountains near the border of New Mexico, the counselors liked to tell us ghost stories. One of them involved a creature called the Mogollon Monster, which sounded to my cynical ears like something they were making up on the spot. Turns out, they weren’t.

A body of folklore about a shambling humanoid in the woods of North-Central Arizona has been circulating for more than a century. He lives, supposedly, amid the dense forests of the Mogollon (pronounced Muggy-yon) Rim, the dramatic escarpment that separates the northern third of the state from the basin and range country to the south.

In 1903, The Arizona Republican ran a story about the harrowing experience of one I.W. Stevens who reported seeing a bigfoot-like man with “long white hair and matted beard that reached to his knees. It wore no clothing, and upon his talon-like fingers were claws at least two inches long.” Other encounters described a stinking beast about 8 feet tall, sometimes wielding a club. How many of the reports were hoaxes or cases of excitedly misidentified elk or bear is impossible to tell.

Trudging through these lonely ponderosa forests near the Rim, though, it’s easy to see how those stories grew up around here. Not even the Native people treated it as much more than a byway to pass through. It was an old trading link between the Hopi and the Yavapai down in the Verde Valley. Though the forest has been logged out and regrown multiple times, it seems haunted with the apparitions of previous travelers.

This region is called Happy Jack after a vanished lumberman’s camp, and the road is hard-going, strewn with ankle-twisting magma rocks and rutted by last season’s rains. The only landmarks are the cattle tanks, the silted-up ponds behind earth dams piled up long ago by Mormon ranchers with rented bulldozers. Land here was a commodity, not a romance. I’ve begun to develop a lack of feeling in my soles, a condition that will only get worse the farther south I travel.

In front of me is Hardscrabble Mesa to the west and the beginnings of the Mazatzal Mountains – the hardest stretch of the trip. They are barely 100 miles from metropolitan Phoenix and yet one of the least known and visited ranges in the state. The name is from the indigenous Nahuatl language of Mexico and means “place of the deer,” and the local pronunciation is Mad-as-Hell.

The historian Thomas Sheridan wrote this passage about these mountains that has always haunted me. “If you hike into the Mazatzals, you pass jagged outcrops of rocks that are 2 billion years old. These rocks were Arizona before Arizona had a name, and they will be Arizona long after the name has disappeared. All of us – Paleolithic mammoth hunters, Hohokam farmers, Mexican ranchers, Anglo American dam builders and city dwellers – are light dust on those rocks. The land should make us humble, but it rarely does.”

The trail winds through meadows, over a ridge, down the service road for a humming power line, then up and over a vicious malpais littered with sharp volcanic rocks. I filled up bottles at Whiterock Spring, went past the LF Ranch with its bunkhouse, and then up and over the northern edge through the steep drainage of Bullfrog Canyon, littered with yellow wildflowers. Sweat tumbles out from me relentlessly and helplessly, and I stop to chug down an entire liter without stopping.

This walk has forever changed my relationship with water; I now understand it as a substance like gasoline or motor oil, and I am acutely conscious of how close I am to death should I ever run out. As the shadows descend and the burning sky begins to cool, the limestone cairns on the faint trail begin to look like scattered bones, and I spot a hole that looks like a lunar crater. Up on a ridge, I can perceive the lemony glow of metropolitan Phoenix to the southwest. Perhaps it was the exertion of the day, or perhaps it is feeling reasonably secure with water for the first time in a while, but I experience a moment of peace, almost to the point of intoxication, which I hadn’t felt in some time.

All of what surrounded me – the stars, the moon, the weeds, the bugs, the mountains, the shine of the unseen city – felt connected in a giant design whose scaffolding lay all around but could not be physically perceived. The separation of all the world’s parts, what the classic Chinese poem Tao Te Ching calls “the 10 thousand things,” can seem like the greatest of delusions in certain moments of ecstasy. And then, just as quickly, you are out of it. The feeling of unification does not last.

I reluctantly left this ridge whose name I did not know and went to look for a campsite in the lower valley, my flashlight prodding the dark. The morning takes me up near the crest of the Mazatzals, a series of stone heads that looks like a line of Cenozoic spark plugs. The trail is littered with broken chips of slate, and bees buzz in the yuccas with dismayed stems, like they are surrendering themselves to the heat. There is nothing to be seen of humanity’s mark except the trail itself, which winds in unpredictable directions. I lose sense of compass points. And at length I come to another ridgetop, and it all clicks back into place.

I can now see the faraway blue coxcomb of the San Francisco Peaks north of Flagstaff that I thought I left behind more than a week ago. To the west is the Bloody Basin. And to the south are the slabs of the Superstition Mountains. Here is a gigantic chunk of Arizona all in one screen, like looking at how the state’s massive jigsaw geology fits together from the vantage point of a space satellite.

A flat spot off the fire road in the Superstitions seems as good a place as any to flop for the night, though the partition in the rocks that let me glimpse Phoenix is also a natural conduit for wind blowing in and the tent flutters all night long. The smoldering electricity of the megacity makes patterns on the vinyl. When I crawl out after sunrise, exhausted, the city lights have all disappeared, but a carpet of yellow wildflowers, Pectis papposa, among the foxtail barely stretches down a hill to the east. This variety of aster can be found all over the Southwest, their seeds carried in seasonal wind currents, and it is no surprise that they should be lighting up this breezy keyhole in the mountains. When combined with poppies and Indian paintbrush, the effect of wildflowers can be dazzling: a spray of rainbow gentleness. Passing near here with General Crook in the 1880s, cavalry Capt. John Gregory Bourke noted “a carpet of colors which would rival the best examples of the looms of Turkey or Persia.”

The dirt jeep trail underfoot is splotched with motor fuel and lubricant stains, but a thinner trail soon winds off into the Four Peaks Wilderness, named for the row of rhyolite and shale knobs that serves as a distant backdrop for the eastern suburbs and also appeared in 1996 as the purplish logo on the first state license plates to bear a graphic element under the letters and numbers. A typical Arizona scrum of manzanita, desert mahogany and sumac lines the path that leads past the northernmost and highest summit, Brown’s Peak at 7,657 feet. I had tried and failed to climb it 18 years ago in a high wind and had to stagger back down with blood on my face.

No time today for a repeat engagement; the route hugging the southern slopes becomes monotonous, bulging with the peaks and then retreating into high canyon folds, and the oaks turn dark and instinct. Off to the east under the Sierra Ancha Mountains is the Tonto Basin, a broad bowl that Capt. Bourke had described as “a weird scene of grandeur and rugged beauty” and “one of the roughest spots on the globe.”

I wolf down a dinner of pepperoni and tortillas with my aching legs dangling over a precipice that seems to plunge 500 feet in the lunar obscurity, and then come to a valley an hour later that makes my heart rise with happiness: a scattering of saguaro cacti pinned to the incline that leads down to the broad bowl of the Tonto Basin. The first saguaros I’ve seen on the trail, which means I’m at the edge of the Sonoran Desert.

These ribbed green poles with arms held upward in hallelujah poses can rarely grow north of the 33rd parallel, though they’re astonishingly hardy once they find the right soil, sucking up the brief bursts of water from monsoons with root systems that go only 6 inches deep but can spread out 30 feet or more in all directions. When fully mature, they can weigh up to five tons and can live well past a century; it wouldn’t be out of character for this stand to have sprouted before Arizona became a U.S. territory. Though I’m exhausted, I exult in seeing them under the bright bulb of the moon.

Zoellner is a New York Times best-selling author who covered Valley politics for The Arizona Republic before launching an independent writing career. His nonfiction book Island on Fire: The Revolt That Ended Slavery in the British Empire (2020) won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction. Rim to River: Looking Into the Heart of Arizona (University of Arizona Press, 2023) is the his ninth book. He currently works as a professor of English at Chapman University in Orange, California.


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