Failure of Imagination

After moving to the USA, one of my first solo camping trip was to the San Francisco Peaks. I grew up in the UK, where the most dangerous thing I could encounter while camping was a slightly inquisitive fox. My inexperience led me to believe that camping in Arizona’s high-country would be much more perilous. Every rattle might be a snake. Every rustle: a hungry bear.

I’d spent most of the day hiking on Humphreys Peak, north of Flagstaff, Arizona. By early evening I found myself driving along a dirt road through the National Forest. After spotting a nice campsite at the side of the road, I pitched my tent at the base of a large oak tree. I hoped that nestled between the roots of the giant tree, a small tent would easily be overlooked by a passing bear. As the light faded, the September air cooled and an oppressive silence closed in around me. The noise of my camping stove was alarmingly loud and I wished for the water to boil faster.


Eventually, finally, my food was ready. I turned off the stove and, in the darkness, began to eat. Between mouthfuls, I stopped and listened. The air was disconcertingly, uncomfortably quiet. As I chewed, I heard movement to my right. It was something large, but managing to move quietly through the trees. Stealthy, deliberate. I swallowed. Whatever this thing was, it was getting closer. With my heart beginning to thump, I stood up and moved towards the driver-side door of my car. I paused, hand on the door handle, ready to flee at the first hint of trouble. The animal was now so close that I could hear its breathing.

It inhaled slowly, and took just as much time exhaling. A big pair of lungs. I didn’t want to use my flashlight because it would give away my exact location, and besides, my eyes had become accustomed to the dark. Although I could see the outline of the dense brush, I couldn’t make out what lurked within. While I was still deciding whether or not to abandon camp, a movement in the undergrowth caused me to reflexively pull at the door handle. The car’s interior light came on, and although it did little to help identify the threat, I could see that it wasn’t coming any closer. In fact, the animal was moving slowly away. To this day, I don’t know exactly what it was. If I had to guess: probably an elk.


Several Septembers later, I took a road-trip around the southwest and made my last stop at the Needles district of Canyonlands National Park. I obtained a permit and started hiking late in the day, aiming for the confluence of the Green and Colorado Rivers. Looking down into Cataract Canyon, I watched the two distinct shades of muddy water merge while the shadows climbed the canyon wall. Just before the sun disappeared below the horizon, I started back in the direction of the trailhead.

While walking across the bottom of Elephant Canyon, I decided to stop for the night. The dry wash seemed like a perfect place to camp, and a flash-flood was unlikely under clear skies. I pitched my tent on the soft sand, but lingered outside long enough to pick out the details of a moonless sky. A few hours later, I awoke to something brushing against the tent. The starlight wasn’t sufficient for this creature to cast a shadow, so I had no idea what it could be. It was apparently determined to get inside though – it silently paced the perimeter of the tent several times, probing for a weakness.

Before long, whatever it was went in search of an easier target, and I eventually drifted back to sleep. By morning, I wondered if I’d dreamt the entire thing, but the pawprints surrounding the tent proved otherwise. I’m no expert, but I’m pretty sure I know rabbit tracks when I see them.

Hindsight is 2020

It’s been almost a year since I posted anything here at The Trek, and back then it looked like my thru-hike might have to wait several years. I never imagined that a coronavirus vaccine could be developed, tested, and distributed in less than 12 months. And yet, this week I’ll receive my second dose. So in the absence of any further road-blocks, I’m going to be starting my PCT hike SOBO in late July.

I’m sure there will be additional challenges this year, but I’ll try to keep my imagination in check. There’s no real benefit from obsessing about the state of my feet, my finances, or whether California will have burned to the ground by the time I get there. I’m sure I’ll still occasionally find something to worry about, even when that something may not amount to anything. I’ll just have to remind myself that my problems usually end up being bunnies rather than bears.

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