A Week in the Desert: On Mountain Climbing, Fears, and Distractions

Recently, I got to spend a week roaming the desert in Arizona and New Mexico. Chris and I planned this trip as a preemptive anniversary celebration (two months early but that’s what you get when your husband has a graduate school schedule). A hiking trip down south sounded like exactly what I needed to hit refresh after so much time spent in the office. I decided to share some of our photos and stories in this little online journal I’ve been neglecting. Hope you enjoy!

Our journey began in Phoenix, AZ. We got off the plane and picked up our rental car by about 9:30 am local time. We went to the trendiest coffee place we could find on Google Maps, which turned out to be Cartel Coffee Lab, for some cold press and wifi to plan our day. Hopefully this embedded Instagram pic comes through:

We ended up spending the morning at the Phoenix Art Museum, which was super impressive. It was gigantic and had a wide collection of modern and historic art from various cultures. I, of course, had to see the Italian art section because I took an art and architecture class in Rome, and I thoroughly geeked out over a couple Caravaggio imitators (would Dr. Lev be proud? Not likely). We also loved one of the current exhibits, Longer Ways to Go: Photography of the American Road, which is what you would expect given the title, and brought back some childhood nostalgia for long and crazy road trips.

The rest of our time in Phoenix consisted of the best fish tacos of my life, homemade ice cream that was also pretty good, marveling at how hot it was (98-105 degrees), reading by the pool, and counting how many sports cars sped past us on city freeways. That was pretty much my first impression of the American South, having never been south of Colorado.

The next day we went hiking in Sedona on our way to Flagstaff. Sedona is possibly the most scenic place I’ve ever been. Everywhere we looked was blue sky and multicolored rock formations. We did a five mile hike through the sun and heat to see Devil’s Bridge, pictured below. The park recommends that each person bring a gallon of water with them, to give you some sort of idea of the heat and difficulty of the hike. We brought about 2 liters each and drank almost the entire amount. At the bridge, I set aside my fear of heights (sort of) and walked across the dangerous looking rock formation as other tourists were doing to get pictures.

It was a relief to get back in the air conditioned car and drive through the mountains to Flagstaff, where we were spending the next three nights. Flagstaff is much cooler (75-80 degrees) due to the altitude, and it also seemed to have more young people around with interesting things to do. We got to explore the various art studios, shops, restaurants, bookstores, and bars. We found a telepoem booth where we could listen to free poems by dialing a number from the phone book. I kind of wanted to live in Flagstaff.

One afternoon in Flagstaff, we hiked to the top of a random mountain, one that was visible from our hotel. We climbed around 3,000 feet in close to 3 miles, and then had to go back down. I didn’t plan to go all the way to the top. I wasn’t physically or emotionally prepared. From the bottom looking up, I thought we were just going to do some exploring on this mountain. But before I knew it, we were more than halfway up and still moving forward. Several times I wanted to go back and lead a normal life, perhaps one that didn’t involve strenuous activity at high altitudes. But then we were so close to the top that it felt silly to not make it there (or so it seemed according to Chris and his GPS watch, who had an extremely loose interpretation of the the words “almost there.”)

I distracted myself from the pain in my legs by thinking about people I know who are in chronic pain and offering a few prayers for them. I thought about the only other time I climbed something, Mt. Vesuvius, and how it became my highlight of southern Italy. I distracted myself by thinking about how cute our kitty, Zara, is.

Chris was more than willing to help.

“She’s so cute!” He would exclaim from above.

“She’s so cute,” I agreed. Can you tell that we missed her a lot? We would scroll through our pictures and videos of her every night before going to sleep. It was weird to not come home to her at night.

Shivering from the top of the mountain hugging my knees, I looked out at the surrounding landscape which had shrunk considerably. The surrounding rock formations (once very large) were almost indistinguishable from the rest of the landscape. I wondered, why did I do this?  Why am I on the top of a mountain right now with miles of hiking downward? When did I sign up for this? Why am I here? Is it worth it? I wasn’t so sure.

Because I married a runner and outdoors-man, I’ve developed somewhat of a persona for resisting outdoor activity just because I spend my time on other things. This is one of the ways I’ve learned that joking about oneself can turn a person into a bit of a punchline. Sometimes it’s easier for me to joke about myself than actually stand up for my own decisions, but this also comes with repercussions.

Of course this was a factor in getting me up the mountain. But there must have been something else inside me that wanted to make it to the top otherwise I doubt I would have made it. Part of me must have wanted to prove to myself I was capable of such things.

The way down the mountain was so much more beautiful than the way up. Instead of seeing only the trail, I was facing the skyline. We spotted a family of elk, who were more curious about us than afraid. We watched the surrounding landscape become bigger and watched the mountain we climbed become larger behind us. I was limping by the time we got to solid land. My legs skipped the jello phase and went straight to the pillars-of-lead phase. We looked back at the mountain and couldn’t contain ourselves. Then through my pain and frustration, I felt something like accomplishment.

Aside from conquering the mountain, one of the highlights of Flagstaff was going to an open mic night in town and listening to local musicians and comedians. It was really inspiring to see so much creative talent and energy in such a small town in the middle of the mountains. For years I have been talking about developing my own stand-up comedy bit on the down low, you know, just for the thrill of it. I actually have a running list of potential jokes written in my phone. After staying at that bar in Flagstaff and watching all the local comics, I might just have to develop a few jokes of my own.

At the Grand Canyon, we didn’t do much hiking because our bodies were sore from the mountain. Even a slight incline on the sidewalk was difficult to cross. So we settled for the view from above the canyon, which is beautiful by the way. Aside from a brief stint at Lake Mead and a night in Las Vegas, that was pretty much our trip.

Here are some pictures, so you can experience AZ through my eyes:

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I’m going to end this post by saying that I have some projects forthcoming that I might be able to show you soon. Pretty exciting if you ask me!

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