My sister and I had been hiking for six hours when we turned off the lightly-worn trail we were on and headed into the trees. We were following the advice of hikers who’d posted their comments in the app we were using as our guide. They prom-ised that Inspiration Point, the unofficial hiker’s favourite viewpoint with no mark-ers or trail to guide us there, was worth the extra mile it would add to our already 10 miles that day. We wound around giant boulders and through trees until the wind picked up and we could see the land give way to the immense valley of Chiricahua’s Sky Islands region that covers some 70,000 square miles in the southwest of America and northern Mexico.
We walked towards the edge of the point, wind whipping up from the cliff face in a sort of reverse wave that the birds could ride without flapping their wings for minutes at a time. With three more miles to cover that day, our muscles tired and slowing and our shadows growing longer to the east, we should really have taken a couple of photos and kept on. But without a word between us, we shed our packs and wandered off on our own, settling down in different spots to take in as much of that place as we could hold in our tired, sweaty bodies.
I grew up on seven acres of land in rural Iowa, mostly forest, with a big old farm-house on the front of it, which my parents slowly, over the 18 years I lived at home, turned into a sanctuary of good food, good books and the best sleep you’ll ever have. The house and the forest out back were interchangeable for my sister Caitlin, brother Troy and I, who felt just as at home in those woods as we did in our bedrooms. I don’t remember my parents specifically teaching us about those woods, but I’m sure they must have because somehow we’ve had a deep under-standing of that little patch of nature for as long as I can remember.
We knew that the oldest trees in the woods, the ones that towered over us and everything else like kings, were red elms, and that my favourite tree – now long gone – whose thin branches we’d use to tie our fort walls together and plait into headbands was a weeping willow.
We knew we were most likely to find wild mushrooms in wet mossy areas and at the base of dead elm and ash trees, but we stepped carefully everywhere anyway because we knew they could also erupt overnight in a spot where there was ex-actly nothing just the day before. And we knew that multiflora rose, a non-native and highly invasive shrub that can strangle a forest, will shred your body like a piece of paper if you try to crawl through it.
We knew that when the walnuts started plopping into the yard, gloves were abso-lutely necessary to pick them up, or you’d have brown-stained fingers for the kids to make fun of at school the next day.
We knew the farm cats would have their babies in the loft of the barn and that they would move them to the woodpile if we got too close to the kittens too soon. If we couldn’t keep the runts alive with a dropper of milk, we knew that blooms from the snowball bush or lilacs made the best flowers for their tiny graves, and those for the dead baby birds we’d find fallen from nests, and the pile of fluff we could recognise as a baby bunny that had ended its life as a meal.
We knew winter was hovering just beyond the cut and dried fields of corn when the geese honked over us in a giant fluid V toward the warmth of the southwest, and that a robin sighting in the new year meant spring would, actually, finally re-turn.
We knew how to get away with unreasonably muddy clothes, too; spray each other off with the garden hose while fully dressed and leave the less-muddy but now sopping-wet items out in the grass to dry before slipping them into the bottom of the laundry basket and hoping Mom didn’t notice. My childhood was basically a cycle of getting dirty, getting clean, reading books. Getting dirty, getting clean, reading books.
I don’t think the word “technology” was even in our vocabulary. Computers and mobile phones didn’t invade our lives until I was in middle school and honestly they barely caught on. Even in the middle of winter, we’d dump our backpacks, put on our snowsuits and go outside. When it snows, by the way, the woods be-come perfectly silent, as if a royal guest has arrived and everyone is holding their breath.
For my parents, operating on a middle-class income with three kids, expensive vacations weren’t an option, but we didn’t want them anyway. We drove places instead of flying and camped instead of staying in hotels. We saw South Dakota, Wyoming, Colorado, Minnesota, Missouri, Arkansas, Arizona and Wisconsin from tent windows, hiking trails and the hours we’d spend exploring those wild places, too.
But eventually balance seeks itself out and my body – full of this wild knowledge, secure in the environment my parents carved out to raise us in – craved a new place to know. I moved away to big cities, a different kind of wild, as soon as I turned 18. New York, Istanbul, back to New York, off to London, and now Los An-geles. My sister did the same: New York, Ibague in Colombia, back to New York for a minute, then Minneapolis, and now Los Angeles, like me.
Our adult lives are chaptered by our falling in and out of love with different big cit-ies. The push-pull with technology, public transportation, being surrounded by different cultures and languages; all like fuel for our brains, a constant wave of energy that we love to ride. But no slate is ever wiped completely clean. Our bod-ies were formed in the woods and they are always trying to return.
After years in our concrete jungles, my sister and I started looking for home again when we were visiting Arizona together, a place where our family roots run deep. Though neither of us has ever lived there, we’ve always had family – cousins, grandparents, aunts and uncles – who do, and it’s where our parents fell in love before they moved back to Iowa to start and build our family.
Over dinner one night, we decided we wanted to get to the top of Camelback Mountain and our adventurous uncle volunteered to take us. To avoid the deadly inferno that is Arizona’s midday sun in the summer, we started off the next morn-ing before there was any light in the sky. As we hiked, the sun slid out from be-hind the horizon, throwing a different shade of light on us every few minutes. We could almost hear the mountain waking up in its glow, the way grass and its soil crackles a little when you water it and sit close enough to hear. From the top we looked out of our tired, sunburning bodies over more land than we could take in at once, mostly covered by Phoenix, a city our family has been connected to for generations.
We wouldn’t hike together again for years, until we both lived in the same city as we do now – Los Angeles – where we’ve almost exhausted the hiking trails. Lac-ing our boots before the sun and the city wake up, our bones are hungry for what we used to know and feel; a connection to the earth, a separation from the city and all the wires and wavelengths that connect us to everything else. At the top of almost every hike we’ve done in Southern California, just like the one on Camel-back, we look out over a landscape that’s been built upon, sliced through by roads and dotted with cell-phone towers. We can always check our emails at the top.
It was late when we set off from Los Angeles for Arizona’s Sky Islands, an ancient geological phenomenon that formed when, 27 million years ago, a massive vol-canic eruption covered the area in ash. Slowly over centuries, the sun, wind and especially the seasonal heavy rains and flash floods have eroded the ash, leav-ing behind the beloved hoodoos, or “standing up rocks”, as the Chiricahua Apache people called these thin towers of stone that protrude from the earth. This isolated “mountain range” is unique for many reasons – its history, geology and also rare biodiversity that has coaxed some species of plants, animals, birds and bugs all the way from South America. The area is like a city of its own; the hoo-doos like skyscrapers housing the more than 300 different species of birds. The trees and shrubs like humble homes for the land-bound animals and bugs. The trails like roads worn down by their citizens – bears, mountain lions, armadillos and the occasional visitors like my sister and me. This is the kind of city we’ve come back around to feeling at home in.
We’d brought more gear on this trip than we’d ever travelled with before. Our goal was to get as deep as possible into this wilderness, on foot, together. Our re-search online had warned of little to no mobile-phone service, exactly what we were looking for. My SUV can go off-road and carry a ton of extra water along with coolers of food and isn’t too bad for a nap or, at a push, an overnight stay. Once parked up and off on foot, extra batteries would ensure our phones would provide a GPS guide as long as we needed it and a primitive compass would be our back-up. We needed hi-tech boots that our feet could hike for miles in, do some light climbing in, wade through streams in, plod downhill in, run (if necessary) in and then – the real test – be happy wearing again the next morning. We needed lightweight but strong backpacks that could carry all of our gear, including days’ worth of water, food and extra layers of clothes, all without straining our shoulders and back. We needed sunscreen, water filters, a first-aid kit, a towel… it’s a lot of work to cut yourself off from the built-up world. But like Edward Abbey implores in his epic Desert Solitaire – as only Edward Abbey can – “You can’t see anything from the car; you’ve got to get out of the goddamned contraption and walk, better yet crawl, on hands and knees, over sandstone and through thornbush and cac-tus. When traces of blood begin to mark your trail you’ll see something, maybe.”
We wanted to see something. Feel something. And we weren’t going home un-less we did.
And we did. The aching muscles, the skinned knees, the hours we were too tired to talk as we hiked, the swollen fingers, the jammed toenails, the sunburned spots we missed with lotion, our breathing laboured from the elevation we weren’t used to, all worth it. All for this.
I don’t know how long we spent sitting silently at the cliff, looking out over the val-ley we’d just hiked through, watching birds play in the waves of wind and listen-ing to how it rushed through the trees around us. My sister and I both got up and reached our pile of backpacks at about the same time. We stood over the bags – full of everything we needed to feel this disconnected from the outside world – and smiled at each other. Wandering back to where we’d veered off course to get here and see this, my sister motioned towards a cluster of hoodoos and said to me: “It’s like they know we’re here.” And I know it sounds crazy, but I really think they did.