The sun blasts the red rocks of Sedona, and I feel like I’m on Mars. I’m standing in the lobby of the hotel with jeans and t-shirt hugging my soon-to-be sweaty skin, my backpack weighed down with 3 liters of water. I’m wearing cheap sunglasses. All around me, red rocks rise up like Martian sandcastles and pillars. The morning is a comfortable 85 degrees Fahrenheit.
Beside me stands my youngest brother and my parents. In front of us stands our guide, Ben. He looks a lot older with his hat off. He has khaki shorts and hiking sneakers, and a stuffed backpack. He’s used to parading tourists around the easy trails. We don’t want easy – we tell him to give us a challenge.
The Jeep ride is 20 minutes of driving across parched land turned red by the iron in the rocks and dirt. The paved highway shrinks away quickly to well-worn dirt roads, lined by cattle pastures and shrubs. The road shrinks again to one lane, uneven, unused. The Jeep lurches and shakes with every dent in the road. The drive becomes a roller coaster.
Then we arrive at the trail. Here, the dirt road widens momentarily into a parking space big enough for three cars, then disappears into an expanse of 2-foot-tall shrubbery. Not many cars could have made that journey, and fewer people would have found this place. With our water bottles filled and our shoelaces tied, my family and our guide begin our hike.
The popular image of Arizona is a barren desert with no life. This is particularly true of Southern Arizona, partially because all the rain hits Northern Arizona and stays there. A few weeks prior to our hike, there had been a flash flood, and evidence of that abounded as we walked up the one-time riverbed. Broken trees lay strewn about on the banks, rocks were upturned, and slick lines in the dirt revealed where there was once mud and water flowing. As we walked, we got a vivid sense of the impulsive rush of water.
Another consequence of the rain was an abundance of puddles, which made for a perfect fuck ton of mosquitoes. The entire hike was a constant swatting affair, and everyone ended the day with arms and necks covered in bug bites. I had never anticipated that many mosquitoes; the area was dry for most of the year. Our guide, Ben, said that it was the most mosquitoes he’d ever seen.
Though parts of the hike stretched through dense forest, other parts passed close to historic ranches. Ben pointed each one out, along with a story from their hundreds of years of history. Some parcels of land had stories dating back to Spanish times, others belonging to real-life modern cowboys. Every ranch had a past, and a story. The land hummed with history.
Since the beginning of time, the people of this region have been telling stories. And before they could write it down, they inscribed it on cliff walls. After an hour of hiking, we arrived at our destination: a large stretch of cliff wall with layers and layers of pictographs inscribed on the cliff. Some showed hunting parties, stick figures with chalk sticks surrounding animal figures. Humans arranged in a circle, the leader with rays extending from his head. A snake of black and white stripes, the creation and destruction of all life. A cross, drawn centuries before Columbus, showing the four cardinal directions of the Yavapai and the Hopi. Pictographs of lines and shapes show where Apache nomads passed through the canyon and made their mark. And in more recent memory, cowboys scrawl their names on the cliff, with dates from the 1800’s.
In places like this, the past stands tall. Not ‘there’, not in a book. Not in pictures, not in a documentary. I look around and I see the past. I reach out and place my hand on the same rock a thousand have felt before me. The same rock that Hopi, Yavapai, and Apache once danced around and inscribed sacred symbols onto is now the rock that tourist, hiker, and historian now visit. It is here that history is still alive.
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