Camelback Mountain, Sixteen Years Later

I wish I’d taken photos of my first hike up the mountain. At the time, I didn’t know it would be my last, before moving out of Arizona. All I have are my memories, which I blogged about a few years ago (you can read about it, here).

Sixteen years ago, I had parked in a gravel lot, with plenty of other hikers. Present day, Joni Mitchell’s sage words from “Big Yellow Taxi” couldn’t ring more true. Someone literally paved paradise, and put up a parking lot. Streets. Driveways. Million dollar homes. While I’d been away, the city of Paradise Valley exploded, building around and on the mountain.

There were no designated parking areas, not any I could find. Hundreds of cars were parked on the side of a busy street, even though there were plenty of signs indicating it was illegal to do so. Even the residential neighborhoods were unkind, with signage like this:

What’s a girl to do? I parked with all the other hikers, hoping I wouldn’t find a parking ticket on my car when I’d returned from the hike.

A good friend of mine had flown in for an overnight visit, Camelback the primary objective on her to-do list. This was a hike we’d planned for many months, her first ever. I’m not sure if the Cholla Trail was the best one to go with for a first-timer, but she was up for the challenge!

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It was funny, hiking up a trail I’d been on sixteen years prior. Not much stood out to me, initially. Glancing down the first half mile, I was watching a few golfers out and about on a Saturday morning, teeing off on a really fancy golf course. At a higher elevation, we could see the whole course, perfectly manicured and green, such a stark contrast to the desert rocky terrain around us.

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The trail denoted a 1.42 mile hike up, yet my friend’s ipod tracked our steps, and our mileage, too. Coming up on nearly two miles of hiking, we hit a flat plateau, the calm before the storm. We both felt this was a place for hikers to rest and turn back, if they chose not to continue up more treacherous terrain. I’m not a big fan of heights, and I could see hikers crossing one particular area that had what appeared to be sloping rock surrounding a very narrow pathway. I wasn’t eager to find myself there, but I felt as though our whole intention had been to reach the top. It would be a shame not to finish.

Passing the plateau meant digging in and using our hands and knees, if necessary, to pull ourselves up. I couldn’t take pictures, I couldn’t carry my water bottle. Those items were tossed into my backpack, to free up my hands. At one point, I vaguely thought about mountain climbers, the ones I’ve done for workout purposes. Work out mountain climbers had nothing on the actual real deal. The movements, the climbing reminded me of the hike I’d done before, a familiarity washing over me. If I could do it then, I could do it again!

I could see hikers on the very top of the mountain, a collection of them, silhouetted against the blue sky. It seemed the closer we got, the further away we truly were. Like we’d never get there, a total optical illusion. But we kept at it, finally reaching that point where I was terrified of crossing that tiny pathway. But I did that, too, trying hard not to look down while I placed my hiking boots into the tiniest of spaces.

We were sweaty, covered in tiny little beetles that felt content to rest on our shirts. It was dusty, grimy. Large bee-like creatures buzzed contentedly above our heads. Dust had settled into our cheeks, I could taste the grittiness on my tongue whenever I opened my mouth to speak, but none of it mattered. The only thing that mattered was reaching the top, and when we did, it looked like this:

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We sat a while, quiet. I notice not many conversations take place while you’re on a hike. There’s a contentment to being quiet and listening to your own breathing, or the breathing of everyone else around you. It feels collective, in a way. We snapped a selfie, and you can see the tiredness on our faces, but we’re glowing with the sense of accomplishment. And sweat.

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The way down was even more difficult, considering all the sliding and slipping, trying to extend your body out so you’re literally crab walking down the slopes. But we did that, too, while looking out at the world around us. There was a fantastic breeze that would hit every so often, which felt really great. It wasn’t too hot, even with all the sunshine. It was the perfect day for a hike.

Somewhere on the way down, a chuckwalla was sitting on a rock, sunbathing. Hikers stopped and were snapping photos, which didn’t deter the chuckwalla from his rest. I wouldn’t be surprised if he was used to that sort of attention.

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There’s a feeling of pride when you’ve set out to do something, and it comes to fruition. That’s how we felt when we took our last steps off the mountain, back onto pavement. Tons of hikers were passing us in the opposite direction, ready to embark on their own journey of the day.

The only cloud was the parking ticket I found on my car when we arrived back. I wasn’t surprised, of course. And, $86 was the least expensive violation, according to the pamphlet I’d received along with the ticket . I’m trying to think of a way to go back to Camelback that won’t cost me a parking ticket. I wonder if other hikers are die-hard fans who decide the ticket is worth the price of a gorgeous hike, or if they were surprised to see a ticket on their windshield. I can’t say for sure. I’m sure the parking violations are keeping the city’s manicured lawns and million dollar homes up to snuff, though.

 

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