No Trail Angel

I merged into the streams of rush hour traffic on a Friday, wondering whether I should have Google Mapped the trailhead when I agreed to provide a shuttle so that my husband could complete his last section of the Arizona Trail.

I gently reminded myself not to calculate the hours or the miles as it was counter to the spirit of being a trail angel. We support each other in our outdoor pursuits, and traversing these curvy dark roads was the least I could do to help him attain his goal. 

Within minutes of navigating traffic lights and congestion, I realized I forgot the adapter that connects my podcast-filled iPod to my old Subaru outback stereo. The local NPR signal soon faded, and the journey instantly got a lot longer.

I reminded myself to embody the spirit of service and selfless cheer of a trail angel. I thought of the stories told by friends of elaborate shuttles or the long drives to drop off gear for others.

We camped amidst mesquites on a still-hot desert evening, planning to finish the rest of the shuttle in the morning. We were rewarded with cold beer under the stars and live entertainment from a kangaroo rat dodging our headlight beams. 

As we read under the covers, I was startled by screams neither human nor animal. There were no camps or lights visible nearby on this gravel road off a gravel road, and this was especially jarring. “Coyotes,” my husband, a biologist, said to placate me. These noises were more chilling than any coyote chorus. After several minutes of disturbing grunts and growls, however, the voice of a mother disciplining a pack of preteen boys to go to sleep solved the mystery.

We were restored by breakfast at a diner in Punkin’ Center, a low elevation desert scrubland filled with cows and ATVs. The area was known more recently for the fugitives hiding out there after a prison transport break. We climbed up out of valleys through the sprawl of Mogollon Rim towns to the terminus of my husband’s final trail segment near Pine.

Hikers, runners, and mountain bikers milling around the trailhead increased my compulsion to follow the trails through the shady pines and continue north. Instead, we left his truck and the cool air behind, retracing our steps to the unseasonably hot lowlands.

I felt guilty leaving him at the edge of the mountains under a strengthening sun with a heavy pack and a stiff climb back to cooler air, but he grinned as he set off to finally complete the AZT.

With dust in the rearview mirror, I contemplated my goal of finding a good paddleboarding spot at Apache or Roosevelt Lakes. I was so absorbed thinking, that I soon missed a critical turn to the lakes and ended up on a divided highway headed towards Phoenix and miles from another exit.

When I finally reached a turn-off, it involved traversing a long one-lane tunnel spray-painted with the slogan, “Truckers for Trump.” I was soon back on track, but the wrong turn got me thinking.

Perhaps I should have avoided packing my inflatable SUP and instead focused on my role as a trail angel without an agenda.  Could I truly be a trail angel if I was scheming to fit my recreational pursuits into the shuttle?

In all these years of outdoor adventuring, it is embarrassing how infrequently I have sacrificed my interests to support others in theirs. A friend of ours once gallantly rose at 4 a.m. on a late November morning to support my husband for the start of El Tour de Tucson. I hid under the warm blankets.

Another friend regularly monitors birds in a section of wash and invites me to assist. I have been once. Sure it is a challenge to give up a Saturday or whole weekend without getting any exercise on the trails. But I am curious about the deeper reasons that keep me from being more civic-minded when it comes to the outdoors community beyond loss of exercise or getting up early in the cold.

I have a physically and emotionally demanding job, and I tend to fall back on the excuse that the outdoors is my place for rest and recharge. I don’t give further thought to how I could shift this perspective and see the outdoors not only as my sanctuary but also as a place to give back and connect with others.

I am heartened and grateful when I think about the volunteers who staff stations at races or events, the people who regularly perform trail workdays, or those who mentor youth and lead them on hikes. My efforts to promote and protect the lands I so frequently and thoroughly enjoy (which are so essential to my life) are minuscule compared to the role these places have in my life. My work to facilitate the enjoyment of others in the outdoors is equally measly.

Despite the miles and mishaps, I was excited for an afternoon paddle after completing the trail shuttle. Arizona is underendowed with water bodies, and it was rather ill-advised to purchase a paddleboard as it promotes a desperate urge to engage in one’s sport whenever, whatever the consequences.

I try to paddle any water I encounter in the state, especially if I am anywhere remotely near a water body that is not actively treating sewage. SUP-ing in Arizona has pushed me to the edges, to seek out water I would never normally touch, places I might otherwise drive past, and tolerance for less than ideal paddling conditions. There’s something about being a paddler in a landscape that does not invite much paddling. 

The environment has led to some interesting recreation situations, including a pond in a public park in Tempe with more ducks and fishing rods than available water surface. The mere act of launching in Arizona some days feels like an accomplishment.

At times I do feel a bit ridiculous balancing over fetid brown waters, surrounded by small motorboats, nearly endo-ing into suddenly too shallow water, or standing in the mid-shin deep muck of so many artificial shorelines. The wind that seems to plague all water bodies any season or time of day even when it was calm in the parking lot, the too many boaters, too strong sun, too much litter, and too many cows. And yet I launch.

This compulsion to paddle has resulted in unexpected and numerous rewards, like an osprey or bald eagle flying overhead, a coyote cruising the shoreline unfazed by the presence of a paddleboard, a mule deer grazing under the watchful eye of a great blue heron in a mesquite tree.

Finding a put-in after dropping off my husband proved more off-putting than expected. A growing wind delivered excessive heat. Apache Reservoir is in a canyon, and as I descended the twisty gravel road, the rock tunnels served to funnel, rather than protect from the winds. Deterred but still optimistic, I decided to stop in at the Roosevelt Lake Visitor Center to figure out a more sheltered and less regulated section of the lake without the crowds and expense of the official boat ramps.

The cheerful ranger directed me to a far end of the lake where he said floaters and small boaters go. This tip led me down a gravel road to a scene out of Deliverance in a thicket down by the river. Sketchy men aside, it was no country for a paddleboard as this section of the river was a braided, shallow, rocky channel. I regrouped and eventually set out from a boat ramp that can only be thought of as the seventh circle of recreational hell.

A drunken woman argued with someone at a nearby car. A retiree open carried his pistol as he wandered watchfully while I inflated my paddleboard. Teens in a dark-tinted SUV disturbingly circled while attempting to do donuts on the pavement.

Finally, I was on the water and fully immersed in the intensity of the baking wind and waves. This area of the lake had numerous submerged dead trees, the branches of which protruded like daggers. The wind eagerly pushed my board toward their sharp edges.

Despite the obstacles, I immersed myself in the equanimity that comes with blade-in-water, breeze-in-face, and feet planted on the board. Coots bobbed on the water too. For a couple of hours, the hassles of driving, the failures to find a launch, the questions about my motivations and contributions to the outdoors, the spilled hummus in the car, and long drive yet-to-come were left behind at the ramp.

I am still no trail angel but I am working on it.

About the Writer

When not working with children as a Physical Therapist, Rebekah Doyle explores mountains, deserts, and oceans by foot, pedal, and paddle. More of her writing can be found here.

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