It was March 7th, 2020, and Jesse and I were heading out on foot to spend six days in the Mazatzal Wilderness of central Arizona. We would be walking for no other reason than to get to know a desert landscape that was new to us. With the blue triangle of the Mazatzal Mountains ahead, we followed cows and cairns through a juniper forest. As we made our descent into the Verde River Valley, wildflowers appeared below prickly pear, then mesquite, palo verde and flame-tipped ocotillo spread out across the rolling land. We pitched our tents in green grass below cottonwoods and sycamores while the near-full moon perched on the edge of the hill by our camp.
In the morning, we inflated our six-pound pack rafts, pushed away from shore, and let the current take us. The Verde descended through biomes until saguaros bedecked the south-facing rocky slopes. The river twisted around banks overgrown with phragmite, an invasive reed, and spilled sometimes through them like hair though a brush where our boats were too big to pass.
The second day’s float was cloudless and blue and we made camp on a floodplain 25 feet above the river. I walked back and forth from my tent to the bank wondering how water could have possibly flowed through here. We decided that it was more or less impossible, but I kept ruminating on it and, when it started raining during the night, I worried. Occasionally I peeked outside, half expecting small rivulets to be flowing across the ground towards me.
It was still drizzling when we woke so we packed everything up wet and pushed off into the current for a third day on the water. Five hours later, an old, narrow suspension bridge appeared across the water and we pulled in to shore. The sun came out and we dried things as well as we could before heading east on foot through a beautiful Sonoran ‘garden’ and toward the blue mountains where we would be sleeping. Palo verde, saguaro, prickly pear, globemallow, mesquite, and yellow flowers I couldn’t name all grew together in close, diverse communities. It was obvious that they need one another; that any species alone would struggle; that together they flourished.
That night it rained again, tapering off towards morning. Within our first half-hour of hiking the sidehill trail through wildflowers, agave, and sotol, fog closed in on us. Visibility dropped to almost nothing and it began pouring. Within an hour, our raingear had completely failed and we had to keep moving just to stay warm. We spoke little, save for terse navigational utterances.
We walked ridges that dropped off steeply into white abysses on both sides, and the world shrank to merely a narrow space between them, monochromatic ponderosas fading in and out of existence as we passed. We followed cairns through the fog and rain until they began to be swallowed up by manzanita and willow chaparral. Old, burned juniper logs lay across our path here and there, reminders of why this landscape looked the way it did. In 2005 a fire ripped across the Mazatzal Mountains and, since then, the manzanita has superceded whatever complex community previously existed. Swimming through the wet leaves of the chaparral pushed more water through our clothes and, as my teeth chattered, I knew I couldn’t keep it up much longer.
Swimming through the wet leaves of the chaparral pushed more water through our clothes and, as my teeth chattered, I knew I couldn’t keep it up much longer.
By afternoon, the entire place was flash flooding. Then, just as we crested a hill, the fog lifted, revealing massive, gray cliffs with waterfalls pouring hundreds of feet out of the notches between each towering, craggy tooth of stone. Tired as we were, we stood in awe for several minutes. We found camp on a yellow, grassy ridge, setting up our tents on either side of a blackened fork of a tree. Before dinner, we were already laying silently in our sleeping bags. The rain had stopped and white strips of cloud settled in the mountain valleys below us. The lights of Phoenix blinked on somewhere in the distance, an unreal orange in all that white and blue.
As Jesse started snoring, the wind picked up. Rain spit intermittently on the tarp and the fabric pushed against my head in the small gusts. I was heading towards sleep when a flash of light forced my eyes open. ‘No!’ I said out loud and sat up in my tent with my quilt still wrapped around me. Thunder boomed soon after and I waited for more. After three more strikes and booms, my heart was pounding. We hadn’t had lightning or thunder all day, so I hadn’t questioned our camping on an exposed ridge.
‘Hey, Jesse,’ I said. ‘What do you think about this lightning?’
‘I don’t know,’ was his very brief answer.
I looked at the pile of wet clothes in the corner of my tent. Pulling the icy fabric over my dry skin and scurrying off the ridge into the manzanita in the chilly night to escape the lightning sounded just as, if not more, dangerous than just risking it on the ridge. We could end up blue-lipped and shivering in an arroyo, becoming hypothermic, praying, almost, for a nearby strike just to warm us.
There were three more bolts and three more rounds of thunder. I had waited out a lot of lightning storms before but never had I felt this vulnerable. It was as if I was laying on the world’s sacrificial altar. But then the fear in the pit of my chest started to bloom somehow into acceptance as I found myself entirely choiceless, and the acceptance felt nearly pleasurable. I knew in my body at that moment that the world doesn’t care about me. Lightning will come or it won’t. Rain will fall or it won’t. There’s nothing I can do to control the world around me. I just have to move through it with this awareness: small, helpless, respectful, grateful. I felt a sense of letting go rise up in me. My worry fell away. The words ‘there’s nothing I can do’ repeated over and over just behind my lips. My thoughts, my body, the rain, the stone beneath me, and the moonlight above the clouds became equal and the same. Nothing held precedence over anything else.
Lightning will come or it won’t. Rain will fall or it won’t. There’s nothing I can do to control the world around me. I just have to move through it with this awareness: small, helpless, respectful, grateful.
I watched the eastern horizon for some sign of morning. Phoenix still glowed in the west and the waning gibbous cast a blue light through the thin clouds straight above. When the pale sky brightened enough that I could see the ground around me and some detail in the hills where we were going to be walking, I quickly transitioned from my dry clothes to my clothes still wet from the day before.
All day we again swam through manzanita in the rain and fog. I started checking for messages on my satellite communicator, unable to escape the feeling that, when we finally reached the trailhead, our ride (my friend Hannah) wouldn’t be able to make it to us. Eventually, I got the message I was – in my gut – expecting. It said: ‘I am 7.5 miles away, the river has flooded the road, sign says do not cross when flooded. Can you hike the road to me? I’ll come if/when the river drops.’
‘Hey Jesse,’ I said, ‘We’re going to have to walk.’
We both cursed as we quickly repacked and started down the road. Within a half mile I heard the sound of engines. Spotting a vehicle I started running, waving my trekking poles above my head in exaggerated desperation. On getting closer I could see several kids, a four-wheeler, and a golf cart. When they’d heard our story and agreed to drive us toward the flooded river, our ride turned out to be a 12-year-old kid named Levi who, to my surprise, took the golf cart right through the water, with steam pouring out of the floor around our feet, and deposited us on the other side where Hannah was waiting for us.
My relief was minimal, however. An hour later we pulled up to the previously gentle creek running across the road that led to my truck, and our hearts sank. As I’d feared, it was far too deep to drive through. I had no vehicle. I had no wallet. The water would determine when I got home; we would just have to wait.
Hannah bought us burgers in town and we checked our messages and the water level of the Verde. It had been a pleasant 150 cubic feet per second when we were boating and was now flash flooding at about 20,000 – about the flow of the Colorado River when it’s running its highest in June. The floodplain on which we had camped, wondering how water could ever flow across it, was now easily under ten feet of opaque, churning, and utterly intentionless water. I started scrolling through the news.
I had felt the precarity of my life, how reliant I am on my truck, my wallet, my phone. And now I could feel the precarity of others’ lives.
Covid-19 had been a minor news story in the U.S. when we’d left, the virus only present in a few nursing homes in Seattle. It had now been declared a pandemic and had made it to my hometown of Salt Lake City. The prospect of social distancing, isolation, quarantining, and shelter-in-place scenarios arose on the horizon. I had felt the precarity of my life, how reliant I am on my truck, my wallet, my phone. And now I could feel the precarity of others’ lives. The precarity of our medical institutions. The precarity of our entire economic system. The illusion of control that these things give us began to seem more fragile, more tenuous than it ever had before. I thought of the way fear had bloomed into acceptance as I waited out the lightning just the night before, and wondered if I would be able to hold onto that awareness as I re-entered the human world, now stripped of its former certainty.
In the morning we helped Hannah move out of her apartment while waiting for the water to drop. Crossing the Verde River in Camp Verde, the extent of the flooding was beyond anything I could have imagined. It overtook the banks, covering even the mesquite above the floodplain. The grey tops of cottonwoods just barely poked out from the steadily moving, brown soup. Only timing had kept us from dying. We had been about 36 hours ahead of death by water and we had had no idea. I guess no one ever has any idea.
In Trader Joe’s we walked through the selectively-raided aisles. No beans, no rice, very little pasta, plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables. I didn’t fully understand at that point; I’d have to spend a little more time with the news. In streets still damp from rain, the clouds threatened to part, looking heavy and ragged, evenly spaced and tired. We found coffee nearby and sat looking at our phones. I watched the barista reject a customer’s personal mug: ‘Disposable cups only,’ she said.
The next day we went back for my truck, fording the creek on foot and walking six miles up the muddy road. When the truck was in view I started walking faster, overtaken by the anticipation of regaining a measure of control. I’d seen wet tyre tracks either side of the creek, so some vehicles had clearly made it across, but as I nervously drove through it in 4-High and first gear, water rose steadily around the truck, coming over the hood before dropping again just as fast. We emerged on the home side of the creek. I felt tension flush from my body in a wave. I turned off the engine and stepped out of the truck to look back.
We had driven across the creek over a week before, perceiving it only as a wetter part of the road to the trailhead, not as a boundary between worlds. But now the two sides were divided by deep water. I’d thought that the road on the far side of the creek led to the wilderness, with all its humbling loss of certainty and control, and that crossing back to the home side would return me to normal life. But I realised now that it was the other way round: The road on the far side was the past world of certainty and control, which I had taken for granted; the home side was a world falling headfirst into a global pandemic. Retrieving my truck and crossing the creek had given me a temporary and fleeting feeling of regaining control. But the truth was, powerlessness, and the wilderness, would be following me home.
After saying our goodbyes to Hannah, we took the highway north through ponderosas in the golden light of early evening, into the changed world.
All photographs by Ben Kilbourne