The dark storm blackened the horizon, and I plunged headfirst into a rushing wind.
Enter the Void
The morning came, and I knew it was time to leave Safford; I had tarried too long. I spent the day packing and adjusting my things, and creating final updates on my various social media accounts before the long march to New Mexico. It would be at least five days until I could reconnect.
Since posting my latest update video, I had received plenty of positive thoughts and encouragement from my followers, and I felt that I couldn’t let them down. This adventure wasn’t just about myself anymore. I had a hundred people who were counting on me to make it, placing their hopes and dreams in me, to go on the journey they never had the time or the courage to go themselves. I had to succeed.
The evening approached, and I stepped out of my room into the hazy air of a brewing storm. To the east, I could see the sky was covered by immense, dark clouds. Thunder boomed in the great bellows, and bolts of lightning bursting under the anvils. The rumbling storm hung almost motionless in the air, as if awaiting me to pass under it. A strong wind came forth and blew dust into my face, heralding the challenge ahead.
Here I was, standing before the chaos, a black void that I had to plunge into. Last night, I had spoken metaphorically about going through this, and now I stood before it in an undeniably literal sense. It was my fate for me to stand here, but was I destined to succeed? I could turn back, wait one more day for the storm to pass, and walk in safety, but that could be a mistake. What if by going through an obvious danger, I would emerge safely, but by waiting for it to pass, I would later be smote by some unseen threat, as punishment for refusing the challenge? I threw caution to the wind around me, and marched toward the storm.
With every mile the light grew fainter, the thunder roared louder, and the wind hastened faster. Before long, the last rays of the sun vanished behind the earth, and the clouds moved swiftly to obscure the horizon, plunging the land into an utter blackness. There was no moon, no stars, with the only light coming from the flashes of cobalt lightning exploding in the clouds above. Even on full power, my headlamp could barely penetrate the darkness around me, and I came to rely less on my eyes and more on the feel of the earth to guide my steps.
It was hard going, it was tough, but at a certain point, I began to enjoy it. If the only counter to primeval fear is righteous fury, then the only counter to misery is mirth. I fought against the wind as it battered me about the road, shouting at it to blow harder. I squinted through the rain as it tried to blind me, demanding it to pour harder. I laughed at every thunderclap, daring it to break louder. I pressed on through the night, relishing in the danger and discomfort. Before, in the angst of my motel room, I had despaired over the invisible phantoms haunting my mind, but here was something outward and real to fight against. Whatever doubts and suspicions I had conjured were blown away by the storm, destroyed in the act of striving against a physical foe.
After pressing on for many more miles, the storm lost its power; the wind blew slower, the rain poured lesser, and the thunder echoed softer. Eventually, all that was left was serene silence under the bright stars. I found myself lying on the ground unscathed, and content. I had passed through the Void, and The Adventure had truly begun. Now the true tests were sure to come.
Over the Hills and Far Away
I awoke at first light, having made camp behind some large bushes near the road. Although I had only traveled ten miles the previous night, the inward and outward struggle of plunging into the Void had all but exhausted me, and as I began to hike my first few miles, I knew that I needed more rest. I found myself a big creosote to lie under, and slept further into the morning.
Awaking a second time, I saw that the land was a bit different here. There were no cacti, but more grasses and bushes, the earth had more bumps and dips, and giant millipedes crawled under the damp shade. But the strangest thing was the music: the cicadas sang a tune I hadn’t heard before, a rhythmic start-and-stop, quite unlike the shamanic humming of their Sonoran cousins. Here was a desert unlike the one I had grew up in, and I felt that I was entering foreign land for the first time.
After rising from my nap, I continued on for a few more leagues. Gone were the heavy clouds from the night before, and the sun beat down with a fiery oppression. The air was broiling and still, and the only relief I could get was from the wake of speeding trucks and semis. The road, shimmering with mirages, was flat and straight, but headed dead-on towards a steep mountain that I had a faint hope was not along the way.
Sometime around noon, a pair of fighter-jets came roaring in from the southwest, and although it may have been my imagination, it seemed as though they circled directly above me a few times before flying on. Perhaps the pilots had spotted me during their exercise, and thought it incredulous that some drifter was pulling a cart out here in the middle of nowhere in this heat. If it were 200 years ago, I would have been me finding it incredulous that two men were flying above me in machines at great speed. Funny how things change.
Towards 2pm, the heat was becoming unbearable, and I came acorss a large bridge that traversed a sizable wash, and humped my gear down into it to rest until the evening. Even under the shade of the road, I was being dried and roasted, for a wind was blowing through the wash that was just as hot as the ground it flew over. I lay on my pad, roasting and sweating, trying to ignore the heat and find respite to no avail. Inevitably, it became cool enough that I could proceed onward, and I was back on the road. As I hiked on, it became increasingly obvious that the highway was indeed going up and over the mountain ahead of me, and I prepared myself as best I could for the upcoming climb. I reached the base by dusk, and as the sun fell, I rose.
Starting out, I used my two staves like extra legs, pushing against the ground with my arms. This quickly became too strenuous, and I resorted to grabbing the rope with my hands and pulling it behind me, which was much easier, but still tough work. The road twisted and turned up and up the mountain, slowing my pace to a crawl and forcing me to rest long and often.
While still hiking past midnight, the road went through a tall hill that was cut into a straight-walled pass. When I looked up to the top, my lamp caught the bright eyes of a mountain lion stalking me from above. I wasn’t keen on having a creature of the night following me, so I began to sing as loudly as I could while hiking, my voice echoing throughout the mountains. Man and beast alike would probably think me crazy, a lone vagabond singing Led Zeppelin songs in the mountains during the witching hour. I must have scared the lion off, since it was nowhere to be seen once I exited the pass. Clearly, it was powerless against the might of Robert Plant.
Finally, after climbing for seemingly another ten miles, I reached the crest, and the road began a gradual downward journey into the valley below. Around 3am, a car pulled up next to me and the man inside asked if I needed any help. I told him my story, and he offered to give me a ride to the gas station at Three-Way Junction, but I was confident that I would reach it before passing out. We departed, and by the time the night was fading away, I saw the lights of Three-Way in the distance below me.
After making the final descent and passing over a tall bridge which spanned a canyon separating the mountain from the town, I came to the gas station just after dawn. It was a little run-down shop at the intersection of three highways, and dotting the hilly land around it were a handful of houses, a Ranger station, a Jehovah’s Witness church, and a couple of industrial yards. I went inside to buy some food and drink, marveling at the insane prices ($1.25 for a single packet of ramen!), and then headed over to the adjacent ranger station. Here, there was a small public park and rest stop with a bathroom, drinking fountain, and some large ramadas with tables under them. I used my tarp to block off a side of the ramada, creating a sunshade, and did my best to find some rest.
I had just walked 34 miles in two days, the most I had ever done in that amount of time, so I knew I needed a full day’s sleep. But doing so would throw a wrench in my daily rhythm, and I wasn’t keen on having to continue a nocturnal cycle, given that the next big section of my journey wasn’t in the desert. From here, I would take the 78 east up a steep rim that lead to a mountainous forest, then across the New Mexico border to a little place called Mule Creek, turn north on the 180 and follow it through mountains and valleys for about 50 miles to Reserve. But first, there was a small campground called Blackjack on the rim about 14 miles away, and I decided to hitch a ride there to sleep through the night, seeing as there wasn’t a real place to sleep in town.
I went back to the gas station and spoke with the cashier lady who, after explaining my story and situation, agreed to give me a ride after she got off work, but needed to speak with her husband first. She called him up and told him about me, but did a bit of a poor job of trying to explain that I wasn’t a weird serial killer, so he decided to come down with his sons to check me out that evening at 6:30. It was only 2pm by this time, so I had to kill some time.
Back under the ramada, it was absurdly hot. It was at least 118 degrees outside, and the scorching wind was blowing so fast it was like being inside an industrial convection oven. Rest of any kind was impossible, so I spent my time editing my pictures on my camera and writing down notes. I poured water all over myself so that the wind would cool me down, but I dried out quicker than a raindrop on a frying pan, so I had to drenching myself every fifteen minutes.At one point, I tried to get creative with a bandanna and ended up almost water-boarding myself in the process:
It was a miserable four hours, but the time came to meet the cashier’s husband, Antonio, and his two teenage sons, Isaac and Andres.
As soon as they met me, I saw on their faces that they realized I wasn’t some roving rapist, and were enthusiastic to hear about my journey so far.I loaded my cart onto the truck bed, andAntonio drove us up the winding road to the campground on top of the rim. For such a short drive, it was fascinating to see how quickly the world changed. The campground sat over 2,500 feet higher than Three-Way, and while standing in a cool pine forest you could look down into a hot desert below.The campground was a cozy little place on the side of the highway, and we found a nice spot near the entrance for me to set up for the night. I thanked them for helping me out, and after they departed I set up camp and went to sleep.
The next morning, I was awoken by cheerful bird-song and a cool breeze blowing through the trees. What a relief compared to the days before! It was a good portent for today, because this was the day I would be crossing the border into New Mexico! The first milestone of my journey was near, and it felt invigorating to be so close to achieving it.Even if I were to quit after crossing the border, it would still be an accomplishment unlike any other in my life. I packed my things, made myself ready, and headed out onto the road.
Hiking here in the mountainous forest was more demanding than the flat desert, but it was a breezy and pleasant day, so the trade was fair. And all around me were trees, beautiful trees! No cactus, thorn bush, or goatheads. Just tall pines, white flowers, and long grass. Every clean breeze carried with it the smell of fresh pine needles and pollen, and for a while, I almost forgot the smell of dust. I hiked up and down slopes, around bends, over riverbeds, through meadows, and finally, after climbing a steep, long hill, I saw the border of New Mexico.
I made it! Here I stood before it, and with a little help, I had reached it on my own two feet. It seemed incredible that so much had happened in just a month, compared to my life as it was before I left. And to think I still had over 2,500 miles to go! Whether my shoulders were stronger, or my load lighter, I felt the immense weight of my journey lift ever so slightly. If I could cross one state, I could cross all ten.
With a beaming grin and a farewell to Arizona, I stepped into the Land of Enchantment.