As I've grown older I've come to dislike hiking trails -- one of the reasons I've grown to love the American Southwest. Here, you can find vast stretches of public land that extend to the horizon and beyond, so sparsely vegetated that you can strike out in any direction you wish. When one canyon or another piques your fancy, there is nothing to prevent you from simply parking your car and climbing in, taking as much gear and food as you need to explore for an hour, a day or a week.
What you find may disappoint as well as please, but the scenery is so compelling that "disappointment" is a relative term. For wherever you venture, the terrain will be challenging and interesting, and the worst that can happen is that the way becomes impassable sooner than planned, or the drama that unfolds is not quite as dramatic as hoped. When this happens (which it does when you're hiking off the beaten track), what you do encounter will still be fresh and unexpected. And you'll never see a soul along the way.
A trail, in contrast, provides the predictable – invariably with company. You probably know in advance how far you will walk (to the tenth of a mile), what the vertical rise will be, and even the degree of difficulty, presented on a helpful numerical scale. You can also assume that the rough places will have been made smoother, and that the steep places will have been tamed with switchbacks. And you'll also know what the "attractions" will be (e.g., a waterfall) along the way, as well as the reward you'll enjoy if you reach the end – perhaps a mountaintop view that will let you see four states (four!) at once, as if the transposition of political boundaries over geography will make natural wonders more wonderful. You'll also almost certainly see other hikers, unless you're hiking early in the morning (always a good idea for many reasons), or on a weekday in the off-season. The footprints of those that came before, of course, will still be everywhere.
Perhaps most insidiously, there is this: someone else has decided what you are going to see every step of the way, as well as what you could have seen nearby, but won’t.
Of course, there are places where trails are advisable, or even necessary. In forested parts of the country, most people would find traveling through forest underbrush to be both laborious and disorienting, and in fragile ecosystems with high visitation too much individualism would damage the environment unacceptably. But wherever I can strike out on my own, I do. And when I do, I’m constantly surprised by the gaggle of cars parked by trailheads nearby that give access to scenery no more appealing than that to be found in any other direction.
I can’t help wondering whether this is not all of a piece with our modern life of managed expectations. Recreation is increasingly compartmentalized, regulated, sliced into convenient time slots, and enabled — usually for a fee. The result is guaranteed satisfaction every time — but no surprises, whether it be in the form of a day of skiing at Haystack or a week of hiking the huts in the White Mountains. True, there are more people practicing “extreme sports” in off-trail places, but many of these exploits have more to do with the physical challenge than with appreciating where that challenge is taking place.
Which brings me, at last, to a metaphor that occurred to me today as I roamed through the Table Top Wilderness area, a 34,000 acre preserve that is itself part of the much larger Saguaro National Monument, just North of the Tohono O’odham reservation in Arizona. That metaphor involves the flower of the Ocotillo — to me, the most beautiful desert flower of all, and also one of the most evanescent.
Most of the year, an Ocotillo is a spray of spindly dry, spine-covered sticks rising from a common base to a height of up to 20 feet. Each shrub can have a dozen or more than six times that many branches. When not in bloom (which is almost all of the time), the Ocotillo fades into the landscape, its grey-black bark blending into the background with the other parched vegetation of the desert.
Most flowering plants and shrubs in the desert bloom only in season. But the Ocotillo is an opportunist. While it will usually bloom between March and June, whenever a meaningful amount of rain falls, the Ocotillo will spring into action, taking advantage of the fortuitous event to meet its solar energy needs, and also to grow and set another crop of seeds. In a matter of days, small leaves of a rich green spring forth, reaching out on all sides of every branch along it’s entire length. And at the very tip of every branch, an explosion of exotic blossoms springs from a single spike up to 10 inches long, waving in the breeze like a scarlet handkerchief.
A solitary Ocotillo in full bloom looks as if a host of brilliant, red hummingbirds are sipping from the end of each delicate, green branch. A grove of blooming Ocotillos is the most striking thing to be found in the desert.
A week after the rain falls, the show is over. The leaves are shed, lest too much moisture be lost through transpiration. The blossoms rapidly whither and fade to a dull red. Eventually the fall to the ground, making little drifts of petals that look like the piles of twisted red paper that strings of fire crackers leave behind.
Unless you live in the desert (or have a free schedule, a look-out and a private jet), catching the Ocotillo in bloom other than in Spring is a gift — always a delight, and never to be anticipated. I’ve only caught the Ocotillo in full bloom out of season twice, most memorably after topping a ridge with my family as we descended towards Joshua Tree National Park in California at dusk. Suddenly, we found ourselves surrounded on every side by scarlet blossoms on startlingly green sprays, brilliant even in the shadow cast by the mountains behind us. It was a magic moment, made more so by the memory of the times I’ve arrived just too late. Catching the Ocotillos in bloom is an event to be savored and remembered.
And that is where the metaphor of the Ocotillo meets the moral this story, juxtaposing the joy of discovering the unexpected with the more anemic, but guaranteed satisfaction of the prepackaged attraction. To find a waterfall unexpectedly gives far greater pleasure than to locate one when and as promised that may, or may not, compare as impressively as hoped with the picture in the trail guide. In other words, if you knew that you would always find an Ocotillo in full bloom just there, it would quickly become unremarkable.
Of course, there are few waterfalls to be found unexpectedly in most landscapes, and this is especially so in the desert. But the smaller surprises found making your own trail can provide quiet moments of satisfaction that will root themselves in your memory for good.
Like the brilliantly red cardinal that I unexpectedly saw today in the bleak, colorless, January desert, flitting from barren Ocotillo to Ocotillo, landing each time on the end of a branch, and looking for all the world like a crimson spire of blossoms freshly emerged after a long-awaited rain.
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