B y K e v i n F r a n k l i n
I FEEL A TANGIBLE sensation of relief as the sun passes over the western rim of the world. Ahhh...
Hiking in the desert in the summer borders on brutal masochism. That is, unless you wait for the sun's benign sister to light your way, which is tonight's plan.
As the moon rises over the Rincon Mountains, even it seems a little charred from the recent passing of the sun. Moving through the haze of the lower atmosphere, our lunar companion has a tinge of brown to it. As the night cools and the moon climbs higher in the sky, the moon grows whiter and brighter.
A good moonlight hike has a formula: full moon x, few people y, easily followed trail z = moonlight Mecca. The first component is obvious--check the paper or get a calendar showing phases of the moon. Buying a lunar calendar depicting all the moon's progressions and pasting it on your fridge is the ideal way to go for serious mountain moonlighters.
The second factor hinges mainly on scheduling. The time-honored method of dodging most other folks outdoors is by doing anything during the week. For folks prohibited from daytime outdoor adventures by regular weekday jobs, moonlight forays offer the possibility of a mid-week escape from the city. If you can splurge on a late night of dancing or concert-going once in a while and still make it to work, a nighttime stroll should also call you out. Just by driving away from the city, hiking pal Kim Arem and I note the drop in temperature, change in air quality and a general metamorphosis of our selves from high-speed urban attitudes to more easy-going moods.
Bringing a friend along is always a good idea, but at night it becomes especially important. If you manage to break a leg or something, it would be quite a while before anyone would be able to find you.
So now we have the first two ingredients: moon and solitude. Choosing a good place to go is the next step. An old dirt track leading into Canyon del Salto just off Redington Road near Tanque Verde Canyon fits the bill perfectly.
The width and wear of the road make for an easy route to follow. From the tracks we see in the moonlight, we conclude this road sees a fair number of horses, four-wheel drive trucks and other vehicles during the day. Most of this traffic probably comes here on the weekends. Tonight, neither mare nor machine intrude on the quiet song of a nearby owl.
The road passes by a collection of water tanks apparently named by a rancher daydreaming about bartending. We amble past Vodka Tank and Jack Daniels Tank. Could the adjoining Water Tank mix with these? Certainly the nearby Tequila Tank goes well with Canyon del Salto. Possibly as a gesture to the morning after, AA Tank waits down canyon. Though it would seem any notions of nomenclature sobriety passed with the dubbing of Old Granddad Tank even farther off to the west.
After about a mile the road forks in a wash. The left fork heads downstream and eventually rejoins Redington Road many miles later. We take the right fork and head toward a ridgeline and a good view.
Keeping your eyes on the ground can pay off while hiking at night. I notice a squiggling shadow; a flashlight beam reveals it to be a giant desert centipede. The eight-inch, yellowish-tan arthropod feeds mainly on other bugs, though it has been know to munch on lizards and the occasional small rodent. Though its name means "100-legs," the average giant desert centipede has about 42. In front of these legs it has a pair of large pinchers capable of delivering a painful, though not deadly to humans, venomous injection. Yow! Not the kind of creature you want in your sleeping bag. Still, the centipede plays a vital role as a predator and this is its home, not ours. We watch it move, surprisingly quickly, into the bushes.
The road peters out just past Jack Daniels Tank and a rocky wash. We sit and enjoy the view of the moonlit valley below. In the distance the Rincon Mountains are clearly visible and mighty Mica Mountain arcs across our field of vision. Having grown accustomed to the abusive summer sun, I'm instinctively inclined to shrink from the ball of light in the sky. But on cautious inspection, the moon reveals itself as a pleasant counterpart to the sun's harsh rays, creating a friendlier experience Kim calls "moontan."
When we head back toward the truck, our little adventure twists grotesquely into an X Files episode. Hiking on the road, we smell something, well...dead. Looking around we notice a defunct cow a few feet off the road--oddly, we missed it on the way in. A large chunk of its dehydrated flank is missing and it has a freaky death grin on its face. Its lifeless eye sockets stare toward the cloudless sky. When we try to shine some light on the carcass, neither one of the flashlights, (my two best), will function, though they both worked a short while ago.
Writing the whole scene off as another typical alien cow mutilation story, we head back on our merry way, casting an occasional look over our shoulders for cow-tipping space men or demented cultists.
Our hypothesis: Not only are they cooler, quieter and generally more pleasant, moonlight hikes in the summer can be downright weird.
Cutline: Call of the wild: Kim Arem croons to the moon on her didjeridoo.
Photo by Kevin Franklin
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