I Hear My Train a’Comin’

You never know what’s around the bend, and sometimes, it could kill you.

It was dawn, and time for me to ramble on. Jay had dropped me off at the very edge of the city, off the I-10 on a side-road near a place called Vail. The air was still cool but a warm breeze was blowing.

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Ahead of me, my day’s route was twenty-four miles: down the frontage road for a few miles, then along a highway that looped around a series of hills, north up a dirt path, then following a railroad for nearly twelve miles, finally meeting up with a street that ran north/south through a wide place in the road called Mescal. There, I would stock up at the gas station, and ask the local church if I could camp out on their property. With a steady pace, I should be there by sundown. That was the plan, anyway.

Three hours in, by 11am it was scorching, with an arid wind that actually made the heat worse. Even my shemagh was struggling to cool my body down, and I was having to take frequent breaks in whatever scant shade I could find. Much like on the highway from Florence, the land was packed dirt and gravel, covered in low shrubs and bushes that were more thorn than leaf.

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After leaving he frontage road, the highway I was following ran up and down a span of gentle hills, through an area sparsely dotted with country homes and small ranches. The people here were friendly as they drove past, returning my waves with a smile. Yet there was something strange about seeing all these people drive past in their wheeled bubbles, cut off from the sounds and smells of the world, the grit and the wind. They traveled at a speed controlled by their engines, fearful of stopping lest the car to their rear crash into them and kill them both in a fiery wreckage. But travel too fast, and they were guilty of a crime. In a sense, they were prisoners, trapped in their locked, rolling cages. Prisoners of convenience. They, we, trade the wisdom of the road for the speed of travel, having built a society that is impractical to navigate without a motor-prison, given the vast distances between which we’ve built our structures. It’s a trade we made a long time ago, and we’ve gained much, but how much did we also lose in that trade?

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I had an inkling of an answer to that question, but I’m still young yet, and usually one can’t know the answer to questions of Truth until they’ve seen the sum of the equation, which may take an entire lifetime, or many lifetimes, to tread across. At any rate, the sun was starting to beat me down pretty heavy, and I saw a group of ramadas off the road, at what looked like a rest stop of some sort. I set down my pack and took a looksie.

I found that this was a milestone along the famed Arizona Trail, the series of backcountry trails that takes an adventurer from the southern border with Mexico all the way north to Utah. This wasn’t the first time I met the Arizona Trail. Two months prior, I had hiked the ten-mile trail to Reavis Ranch in the Superstition Mountains, and crossed paths with the Arizona Trail while I was there; it was almost like seeing an old friend.

This milestone was dedicated to Gabe Zimmerman, an aide of Gabriel Giffords, the Congresswoman who was wounded in the shooting-spree started by Jared Loughner in 2011. Gabe was slain by Jared that day, and his friends and family erected this monument in remembrance of his love of nature and the land around his hometown of Tucson. Although his journey ended near here, mine was only beginning.

I rested under a ramada for half an hour, then hit the road again. An hour later, and I found myself nearly sapped of energy from the heat, and I was going through my water way too fast. Down a slope and through a pass between two hills, there was a small bridge that went over a sandy creekbed. I climbed down to escape the heat, and rested under the road. Here it was much cooler, and I decided I would nap until the evening and continue again once the sun was almost down. I fell asleep for a few hours, and headed out around 5:30pm, feeling renewed.

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Towards 7pm, I found the dirt road that led north from the highway, and followed it for about a mile. There, I came across the railroad that would take me straight east into Mescal. Fortunately, there was a dirt frontage road next to it, so I wouldn’t have to walk directly on the tracks. I had no idea if this was legal or not, so I took a quick scan for any signs of people, then darted down the road until I was out of sight of anything but the tracks.

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Half a league down the road, I found a tunnel under the rails, where I took another rest to eat dinner and study some cave-drawings the local hoodlums had made. A passing cargo train roared and screeched overhead, bound for the west. It would have been the perfect time to whip out my harmonica and play some blues, but it was time to go.

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As I mentioned, I wasn’t sure what I was doing was legal, so any time a train came through, I ducked out of sight until it passed. Many times I had to scramble for a low spot among some shrubs, or crawl down between some boulders, feeling like some fugitive on the run. I walked on into the night, until I came to a ravine that the tracks crossed over and the road fell into. In the darkness, I could see it dipped pretty far down before coming back up, and seemed to me the ideal place to encounter a pack of coyotes or criminals.

I took off my pack and drew my pistol, creeping down into the dark, ready for a possible threat. As I came to the bottom, on my right I could see the ravine ran on south into the night, and on my left, for a second I thought I saw an ancient castle. It was a tall, concrete structure that climbed up to the tracks, where a tunnel went under to the opposite side. It looked to be some kind of dam, but was broken and crumbling so I couldn’t tell what exactly. I scanned the place with my flashlight, then hauled myself up to the tunnel, which was nearly twenty feet above the bottom of the gorge. There was a flat area in front of the entrance, where I found rifle and pistol cartridges of all kinds, as well as beer cans, of mostly Bud Light. Looking out into the ravine, I reasoned the local boys used this a shooting range on the weekends. I climbed down and went back for my pack, and proceeded on.

After a few more miles, the hills began rolling more heavily, where the frontage road rose and fell accordingly, sometimes disappearing into the wilderness. This was seriously affecting my pace and energy, so I decided to climb up to the tracks, which ran at a constant level. I looked and listened to my front and behind, and after feeling safe no trains were coming, I carried on. Walking on the wooden support beams took a little practice, but after a short while I was able to maintain a good speed. Every now and then I’d stop and observe for a train, but none were coming, yet.

Around 10pm, the full moon began to rise in the west, and cast a beautiful, green glow across the land. I stopped on the rails, and spent a moment to take it all in. I was high above a long valley that the tracks split in two, running straight for half a mile. The glow of the moon was reflected near-perfectly along the tops of the rails, like an emerald road running into the night. Here I was, a young man in the middle of nowhere, standing alone in the darkness with the light of the moon shining in his eyes. I wondered what I would look like to someone passing by, and what they think my purpose was. Was I a criminal on the run? A hobo looking for a place to call home for a while? Simply a ghost of his imagination? A man who was running from something?

Hell, maybe I was running. Running from a lifetime of unfulfilled dreams and missed chances. From failed romances and broken friendships. Away from a world where things that should have been, never were; and things that were meant to change, never did. Maybe I was running towards a dream, one that I’ve had all my life. Or maybe I was running from that train coming around the bend. Shit.

I quickly looked for an escape. There was nothing but steep, rocky slopes all around me. But up ahead, the tracks went through a hill. I ran towards it. Behind me, the light from the train was creeping along the walls of the bend. I kept running. I reached the hill but there was nothing but sheer rock walls to either side. I sprinted through the pass. I could hear the train now, the metallic chug-a-chug-a-chug-a-chug grew louder behind me. I could feel the rumble of the tracks. The pass turned left and I emerged above another valley, but just off to the right there was a small hill that met the tracks. I made a dash for it, just as the light from the train was coming through. I ducked behind some bushes, and only a few seconds later the train came out, chugging along without noticing me. I flopped onto the ground and caught my breath. Note to self: No philosophizing while on the railroad.

A Million Suns Shine Down, But I See Only One

It was nearly 2am when I finally reached the marker-point for the road to Mescal. The railroad had split into a two-track loop a couple miles back, and here they rejoined, right before crossing Mescal Road. I found myself in the space between the tracks, taking a rest among some low trees. I was having to take breaks far too often, and I was getting close to my exhaustion point, since I had drank the last of my water a mile back. I would have liked to simply pass out under these trees, but that would have been impossible with the noise from passing trains. As I was resting, I heard a train coming my way from the west. I looked out from my cover and saw it, but it was slowing down as it approached the rejoining section, eventually stopping completely before it. Not good.

I checked the map on my laptop, and confirmed that Mescal Road was on the other side of the tracks, which was now blocked by the train. At first I didn’t know why it stopped, but I soon reckoned that it was waiting for a westbound train to pass through. Although I could walk up and in front of the train, that would do nothing other than alarm the conductors and cause a scene, so I decided to wait until the right-of-way exchange was complete. Five minutes passed, then ten, fifteen. I couldn’t wait any longer, I’d have to climb over the train. I approached the traincars cautiously, searching for a place to go through. I came up to a petroleum tanker, and saw a ladder that went up to a platform between the cars. I climbed up, shimmey’d over to the other side, and then climbed an opposite ladder down. Imagine if the conductors knew what I just did. Imagine how many things happen around you that you have absolutely no idea of.

I made it to Mescal Road without being spotted, and it would be a straight two-mile shot through a neighborhood to the gas station. What should have taken me forty minutes took me over an hour, and I arrived at the station, practically limping to the door at just past 3am. The lights were still on but the door was locked, and I couldn’t see anyone inside. Defeated, I hobbled to a table a few paces off to the side, threw off my things, and sat down. That church was another two miles south, across the I-10, and it would be dawn by the time I got there anyway. I laid my head on the table and closed my eyes.

I heard a noise that stirred me from my nap. A man came out of the store and walked to his car at the pump and drove off, and I could see another man lock the door from the inside. I got up and shuffled to the door again, knocking on it loudly, as the man had disappeared. He came out of the office and opened the door for me, saying that he keeps it locked until dawn to deter shoplifters. I bought some drinks and snacks, and as I was paying for my items, I asked the storekeep if I would be able to rest at the table until the morning. He was apprehensive, but said it would be okay.

Back at the table, I ate and drank my fill, and got ready to take a nap. It was 4am, so I’d get about two hours of sleep. But that wasn’t nearly enough, I had been out hiking for almost 24 hours. While I was still in Tucson, I had made a reservation for today at the Days Inn in Benson, a town about nine miles east of Mescal. I had planned, of course, to reach Mescal by nightfall, then hike to Benson in the morning, but that obviously wasn’t happening. 24 miles of uphill and offroad hiking with a 50-pound pack had wrecked me; my foot tendons were straining with every step, my calves were weak, and there was a sharp pain in my right knee that was making me worry. To catch my reservation I’d have to hitch a ride to Benson. But who would I get one from?

I came back to the door and rapped on it. The storekeep came and opened it. “Yes?”

“Hi sir, I need to get to Benson in the morning for a motel reservation, but I can’t make it there in time. If I gave you fifteen dollars, would you be willing to drive me there?”

He thought about it for a few seconds, adjusting his trucker’s cap and eyeglasses. “I suppose so, although I don’t get off work until 6. That okay with you?”

“That’d be fine, sir. Thanks for helping me out.” We introduced ourselves; his name was Rick.

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Back at the table, I made myself as comfortable as possible for my two-hour nap. Men in trucks started to show up around 5, getting their morning coffee before heading out to work. I heard Rick approach me a while later, and I hauled my stuff to his truck. I paid him, and we drove the nine miles to Benson on the I-10, dropping me off at the entrance to the Day’s Inn. I stumbled inside, paid for my reservation, got upgraded to a suite for free because of reasons I forget, found my room, and passed the Hell out.

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About ten hours later, I woke up to the late afternoon sun. I got up to use the toilet, and I collapsed as soon as I put weight on my legs. I hauled myself up, and the pain and weakness in my legs was so great I could barely even stand. I crawled into the bathroom, then took a shower while sitting down. If I thought the journey from Florence to Tucson was painful, this was an even higher level of soreness. I massaged and stretched my legs all day, and early in the night I limped to a Denny’s that was across the parking lot of the inn. The smell of fresh cooked pancakes and bacon gave me the strength to continue on living.

I woke up the second day still in a goodly amount of pain. My reservation was for two nights, but I realized I would need more time to recover, so I purchased an additional night at the front desk. I then called my father from my room and arranged for him to meet me in Willcox when I arrived there. Before setting out from my hometown, we originally were going to meet in Lordsburg, New Mexico for him to give me some supplies and extra equipment, but with my route now changed, that had to be rescheduled.

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The remainder of my time at the Days Inn was spent resting and recovering, and after checking out I sat down in the common area and finished typing and posting the “Florence to Catalina” article. By then it was around 5pm, and time for me to set out. My route for the next couple days went through “downtown” Benson south of the I-10, east along a frontage road until it ends, then hiking along a dirt path that led away from the highway, through an area of mesas and canyons, over an even chapparal, then through a narrow pass between the I-10 and a mountain that led to a place called the Triangle T Guest Ranch, where I would camp in safety.

I took three steps out of the lobby and immediately realized I was screwed. The pain in my knee was serious, and I had to put all my weight on my staff just to walk. I was in bad shape, I’d have to get a brace at the Walmart down the way. It took me a while to get there, but eventually I reached the store and got a quality brace. Putting it on, some of the pain went away, which gave me some confidence that I would make it.

Running With the Bulls

It was dark by the time I reached the dirt path from the frontage road. What the satellite map couldn’t show, was that it was blocked by a gate. Luckily, it was secured with only a steel wire loop, but I was concerned I’d get caught trespassing, on either private or state land. I was really hoping that I wouldn’t have to commit any crimes on my journey, but it looked to be unavoidable if I wanted to walk.

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After passing through the gate, I found that this path was marked by tall poles that stated it was a cable road for AT&T. I followed those poles, hiking through dry riverbeds and washes, then around the base of a mesa, which led to a valley. I took a rest there, all alone among the boulders and bushes, with nothing but the light of the stars and the sound of the wind to accompany me. I used to be terrified of the dark, and especially of being alone at night in the wilderness, until I read “The Silmarillion” by J.R.R Tolkien. He wrote about how, in the Elder Days before the sun and the moon were created, the first Elves and Men lived for generations under the night sky, and were happy to dance and sing in the twilight. Nowadays, it gives me a certain comfort to be in the darkness, knowing that this was the way world was before the days of the Sun.

The valley closed up into sheer walls of dirt, and the path up and out of it was more of a climb than a hike, with most of the path washed away. I came up to the top of the mesa, and the path turned northeast and ran parallel to the I-10, which was as busy at midnight as it was at noon. The path crossed an asphalt road, but then I came across a cattle guard with an ominous sign displayed on it:

“STATE TRUST LAND – PERMIT REQUIRED. NO TRESPASSING.” Just what I needed.

I stopped for a moment and considered my options. I could camp here and hitch a ride to Triangle T in the morning, or hike through and hope that no one comes down the trail. I really didn’t want to sacrifice more miles, so I hiked through. After a mile, I saw a group of dense trees and shrubs off to the left that would be perfect cover to make camp in. I set up my sleeping pad and bivy, and got a decent, albeit interrupted, sleep.

Morning came, and by 7am I was back on the trail. Every five minutes or so, I would stop and observe the trail ahead and behind me, listening for engines and looking for dust in the air. The desert became a kind of rolling shrubland, and soon enough I began to see cattle droppings on the side of the road, most pretty fresh. There were no fences around here, so I also began to scan for herds as well. I wasn’t much concerned about heifers, but a bull that sees me as a threat to his females could end my adventure pretty quick. At best, I would have to shoot and kill someone’s cattle while trespassing on private property, and at worst, get gored to death in the middle of nowhere.

After I had traveled six miles, the trail dipped down into a lush wash that was teeming with trees. I found a spot to rest under one of them, and ate lunch. As I was packing up, I heard a sound to the west that made my heart drop: a 4-cylinder engine. I looked around for cover but there was nothing big enough to hide me. I nearly panicked, but then I remembered an important lesson I learned: If you can’t hide, act like you belong there. So I put on my sunglasses and hat, adopted the most confident sitting posture I could manage, and froze solid while staring off into the distance. Soon enough, a man driving a side-by-side came down the trail, and just as he was about to pass me outside his peripheral vision, he turned and looked, then did a double-take so hard I thought his neck snapped. He kept on driving while glancing over his shoulder, but I kept still, and that was the last I saw of him. Was I an illusion? A dummy someone had put out in the desert? He’ll never know.

I waited until I couldn’t hear his motor anymore, then quickly made my escape. The trail climbed back up onto the shrubland, and using my camera’s 40x zoom, in the distance I could see the man stop and inspect a power line off the road, before continuing on. I was safe, for now. I put my camera away, and as I came around a low hill I stumbled upon a herd of cattle and, you guessed it, a startled bull. The bull, only four paces away, jumped up from the ground and stared me down. His heifers were all looking around nervous, and I calmly, slowly, kept walking down the trail while facing my body toward him. A tense minute passed, then he ran around and herded his heifers to safety, and kept watching me as I passed out of view. Yikes! I’d hate for that to happen again.

Three miles later, and I was in the home stretch to Triangle T. It would only be another three to four miles before hitting the road that led from the I-10, and a half-mile after that to the ranch. The trail, having departed the I-10 and meandered through country for a long time, was heading back towards it, and ran parallel to it in amountain pass. As it did so, it dropped down into another valley, and I thought I spied the roof of a barn way ahead through the trees, but I disregarded it.

When I reached the start of the pass, barbed-wire fence was running along the trail to my left, and rocky slopes to my right; not a whole lot of room to maneuver. A short while later, I spied something through the trees, and as I approached, I saw that there was indeed a barn on the trail about a hundred yards up, as well as a ranch house and parked truck that was definitely used and maintained. Yeah, I was trespassing pretty hard. This is also the reason I don’t have any pictures during this part, no need to document my crimes.

I stopped to consider my options, but as I did, a huge bull came around a big boulder ahead of me. His horns were at least twelve inches long, and when he saw me he straightened up to his full height, nearly as tall as I was. I stood still, while keeping my hand on my pistol holster. Wide-eyed and primed to attack, he retreated a few paces, then stared me down. Very slowly and deliberately, I backed away, then he retreated a couple more paces. We kept up this dance until I was out of sight, then I climbed up the mountain a good thirty feet and waited it out. I could see the I-10 was about two-hundred yards from my position, and the mountain behind climbed at least another eight-hundred feet. If I kept on down the trail, I’d either get gored by a bull or held at gunpoint by a rancher, and there was no way I’d be able to climb over the mountain. I’d have to get on the interstate.

I climbed down and searched for a place to get over the barbed wire, and found a sturdy tree that grew up right behind it, close enough to get a foot on and climb up and over. I threw my pack to the other side, and after slipping and nearly slicing my entire calf open on one of the barbs, I made it to the other side. There, I went through a dense wash, dodging more cattle herds, and climbed up the rocky slopes and gullies to reach the highway. Although the width of the shoulder was wide and safe, it was littered with debris from exploded truck tires. At any moment, one of the eighteen wheels from one of the dozens of semis that were passing me could explode and injure me with vulcanized rubber and steel wire. I hiked the highway as quick as I could, and made it to the road that led to Triangle T.

Time Enough to Live

Finally, after another full day of walking, I reached the entrance around 6pm. The ranch was laid out in a big compound, with a welcome office at the front, various cabins and houses throughout, and a restaurant and saloon near the back. I couldn’t find anyone around, until I came upon a pool in the back of the saloon. There, an older couple was lounging.

They didn’t work there, but they told me to go to the restaurant and speak with the chef, who was getting dinner ready for them. I walked over and came in through the old doors like a drifter in a Western. The chef, at first confused, quickly gave me some water and cola after I told him my story. His name was also Scott, and after calling his manager to make sure it was okay, I paid for a campsite to use for the night. While I was waiting inside, the couple had came up to the patio for dinner, and had told Scott they wanted me to have dinner with them. I was comped a free meal (thanks Scott!) and enjoyed an excellent New York steak with roasted cauliflower and mashed potatoes, while I talked to all of them about my adventure so far.

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The next morning, I packed up my camp and used their phone to call my father, so he would meet me here instead of Willcox. I spent the rest of the day until around 5pm lounging in the clubhouse, watching “Blazing Saddles” and “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective” from the selection of DVD’s available.

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My father arrived and we drove the roughly seventeen miles to Willcox, where he had bought a two-night reservation for me at the Arizona Sunset Motel. We went for some food at a little burrito shack, and we caught each other up on our lives.

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Later that night we said our goodbyes at the motel, and I had a feeling it would be a long time before I saw him again. It was strange seeing him then, he having driven a distance in four hours that took me almost fourteen days to walk. There was a certain disconnect I felt, knowing a journey that for me, was an already life-changing experience, but for him, was an uneventful commute on a highway. Even if I spent an entire year of my life walking to New York City, I could simply get a plane ticket and fly all the way back in a matter of hours.

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I realized then, watching my father, my predecessor, depart from me, that the journeys we take in life are not ones of distance, but of time. I wondered how long mine would be.