13 Dec Climbing the Camel

My two brothers  and I went hiking Saturday afternoon. We happened to be in Phoenix, Arizona, where my mother lives. As all of us are from the east coast, we think of wooded trails whenever we say “hiking.” Here in Arizona,  I expected a sandy trail and a leisurely desert walk. We went to a Phoenix park called Camelback, a rocky hill just northwest of town. It’s a major tourist attraction, so popular that you might have to park a mile away and walk to get to the trail.

From the parking lot, Camelback doesn’t look daunting. It’s an impressive sandstone slab but, from all appearances, no more than a twenty minute walk to the crest. Steep, sure, but there are steps and then, at the top, a little lookout for photo-taking. Problem is, the crest you see from the parking lot is just the first leg of a much longer, much steeper hike. Apparently, nobody who’s new to Camelback understands this. It looks like you walk up those steep dirt steps for a quarter mile and then you’re done. Only when you get to the top of that first leg do you realize that there’s a second, steeper leg. And, then, only after you’ve climbed the second steeper leg do you realize that there’s a third even-steeper leg. By that time you’re too deep in – it’s like a bad relationship: you’ve got so much into it, you can’t bring yourself to quit. Little do you know that there are third, fourth, and fifth increasingly steeper sections. By the time you’re done, you will have trekked over a mile up 1400 feet, where it gets so rocky and so steep that you are nearly crawling on all fours to reach the top.

So, there are crowds of cheery, thoroughly unprepared hikers at the bottom — children, retirees, dogs on leashes, pot-bellied tourists —- who haven’t a clue that, short of wearing crampons and doing some real mountain climbing, this will be as tough a climb as they will ever attempt. The varying degrees of shock and amazement expressed by these climbers, once they’re on their way, is something to see. Nobody can believe what is happening and yet almost nobody is willing to turn back. Everyone, except the hardbodies who bound past like mountain goats, is panting and sweating and squinting up, always up and up, in disbelief. One teenaged girl I passed, peered up at her advanced partners and shouted, “My head hurts!”

It may say something about the blind, driving American spirit that so many tourists make an attempt to get to the top of this steep pile of rock. The popularity of a hill like this—that so many would waste an afternoon risking life and limb for a chance to get a good view—may also measure the quality of leisure that one nation enjoys. You can bet that, when the pioneers wagoned out this way, they didn’t burn their precious time climbing hills for no good reason, no matter how pretty the view.

I pitied the scrub trees that jutted occasionally from the rocks, their branches polished by so many hapless hand grips. I pitied, too, the couples who thought this would make a great first date. Said one beau to his would-be mate at the bottom of the mountain: “Ready for the big climb?” She smiled shyly and said, “No.”

Once I was on my breathless way, I was grateful to those ahead of me who slowed the pace of my climb and I was relieved whenever my shoe laces needed tightening. You’ll never see so many excuses to dawdle as you will see on this trail. I left my brothers behind, not because I was determined to beat them to the top but only because I didn’t trust that I’d go all the way if I slowed down.  I couldn’t stand the thought that I wouldn’t make it to the top. This must have explained the psychology of most of my fellow hikers as they shook their heads in disbelief and continued to peer up in puzzlement, as if to say, “This is a joke, right? How could anyone put a mountain like this so close to the road and invite any and everybody to hike up it without posting a warning sign?”

At one point, a woman ahead of me was slipping back—butt first—in my direction and I had to refrain from giving her a helpful two-handed push. I imagine that in a problematic environment like this, people clambering and stumbling every which way over boulders the size of compact cars, there may be plenty of misunderstandings about who’s getting in who’s way. I swear that half the rocks I gripped were slippery with somebody else’s sweat.

If you’re not accustomed to steep climbs over boulders the size of compact cars, you won’t understand that going down could be harder than going up. This sounds like yet another cruel joke, doesn’t it? The problem is, having hurled yourself up the mountain and overtaxed your legs, you are now – happily at the summit – aware that your thigh and calf muscles are twitching like a Zumba pro. Only when you begin your descent will you realize that those muscle can’t resist the bullying pull of gravity. The result is a lot of stumbling and sliding as your legs give way every time you step off a boulder. Dogs have a distinct advantage, being lower to the ground and quadrupeds. So you can add dog envy to the list of indignities you may suffer on your hike.

Which is not to say I didn’t enjoy it. I enjoyed it immensely, in great part because I survived. I imagine that, as hordes of tourist take on this hike, somebody suffers a sprained ankle or broken foot or leg every day. My mother says, “Somebody’s always having to get rescued from Camelback Mountain.” Maybe there was a warning sign at the bottom that I didn’t see it. As one young hiker said in disbelief, “I’m seeing all these old people walking up here and I’m thinking, What the hell is going on?”