Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Forty Days and Forty Nights


Certain landscapes seem quintessentially “Southwest”: a  sea of Joshua trees, punctuated by granite boulders and a handful of precious oases. A jolly saguaro, wearing a cowboy hat, of course. Mirages seething above a low desert bajada, forever just barely out-of-reach reach. Low, rugged mountains full of hideouts and abandoned mines.

These deserts - the lowest, driest, and hottest in North America - are the domain of the 800-mile Desert Winter Thru-Hike (WTH). The WTH isn’t a “trail” per se. Indeed, actual hiking trails are a rare treat in this hardscrabble country. Instead, it mostly follows jeep tracks, ancient mining roads, dry washes, jagged ridgelines, and the occasional utility corridor from Tucson, AZ to Palm Springs, CA. A pair of National Parks - Saguaro and Joshua Tree - bookend the route. Some of the most desolate, lonesome, and rewarding miles of my hiking career lie in between.

Map courtesy of Blisterfree

I flew to Tucson the day before New Years Eve and spent the night with friends Ralph and Sue. It was an evening full delicious food and delightful conversation on topics ranging from faith and worldview, to baseball, to small-town childhood shenanigans. Ralph and Sue dropped me at the trailhead in Saguaro National Park the next day. I couldn’t imagine a better way to begin a long hike.

That evening at Ralph and Sue’s was the last vestige of true civilization I’d encounter for many weeks. Like any trail, the WTH featured “towns” every week or so. But I use that term loosely, because of the seven resupply points on the WTH, three of them are mere gas stations, in the middle of nowhere. This route is not exactly plush. And that’s exactly the way I like it.

Something Old, Something New

The terrain was not entirely unknown to me, however. I walked the Arizona half of the WTH in 2021 while waiting to clear a work-mandated background check. You might wonder why I opted to hike the whole WTH in 2024 rather than just resuming at the California border where I left off in 2021. I suppose there are a couple reasons:

  • Re-hiking a trail is like reconnecting with an old friend. Sure, there’s less novelty the second time, but that’s offset by a deeper understanding of the landscape and a host of good memories from the first go-around.
  • The route was in its very early stages of development in 2021. Blisterfree, the route’s creator, constantly tweaks and refines it. Therefore, even though I had in theory hiked the route before, there was still plenty of terrain that was new to me in 2024.
  • As a route creator, I enjoy seeing hiking routes evolve. I ground-truthed some of the segments in 2021 and have kept fairly close tabs on the WTH over the years. Blisterfree is, without exaggeration, the best in the world at what he does, and it’s fascinating to watch a master craftsman at work. In 2024, I was gratified to hike the (mostly) finished product.

I don’t regret my choice. I enjoyed Arizona just as much the second time, and the much-anticipated California section lived up to my lofty expectations.

Low Desert Wandering

Among thru-hikes in the Southwest, only the WTH is suitable - and in fact designed - for the dead of winter. Unlike other routes, it spends no meaningful time at high elevations. Instead, it oscillates between broad desert basins and low, rugged mountain ranges.

Such is the rhythm of the WTH: I'd cross an expansive desert basin on a two-track, or perhaps just by line-of-sight navigation through the sparse vegetation. Most basin water sources were of the windmill or solar-well variety. Even in this arid country, a few hardy and/or sickly cows subsisted on a meager diet of scrubby thorns. Travel through the basins was generally easy, and often provided opportunities for night-hiking.

Sooner or later though, I'd climb out of the basin into a low, craggy mountain range. I'd often encounter a wildlife guzzler at the periphery of the range, just before crossing into a designated Wilderness area. Once inside the Wilderness, I'd follow ridgelines, dry washes, and burro trails. Travel was much slower in these rugged mountains, as rocks, cacti, and pour-offs slowed my progress. But the scenery was often jawdropping, and the sense of isolation was sublime. These were the miles that made the WTH truly special. Ever heard of the Old Woman or Harcuvar ranges? I hadn't either, and probably never would, had it not been for the WTH.

After crossing the mountains, I'd descend into another basin, and the cycle would repeat. 

Though everything in the desert wants to make you bleed to some extent, I discovered that not all plants are equally sinister. On one end of the spectrum is creosote, the kindest and gentlest of all desert plants. It's a little grabby, but unless you crash into it headlong, it won't ensnare you too badly. On the other end are the twin terrors of cholla and catclaw. Tangle with these guys at your own risk! Cholla is the villain of more open desert terrain. It doesn't actually 'jump' of course, but it falls to the ground in pieces, which stick to your shoes and calves on the way by. Catclaw tends to grow near washes and other sheltered/brushy areas. Slaloming around it can be an absolute pain, but not nearly as painful as getting hopelessly tangled in it. My clothes didn't get too shredded by catclaw on the WTH, but only because I was exceptionally careful. My foam sleeping pad, which protruded from the top and sides of my pack, wasn't so lucky.

There wasn't too much out-and-out bushwhacking on the WTH, but even a small amount of occasional overgrowth was enough to give me a nice set of desert pinstripes.

Dihydrogen Monoxide and other Toxins

It's impossible to overstate the importance of water on an austere desert trek like the WTH. Sources in the desert are infrequent and incredibly precious. Even when water was present, some of it was of dubious quality. Nearly all of the sources were stagnant - either cattle troughs, wildlife cachements, or potholes in the bedrock. Some of my water came in exciting hues - green, brown, or yellow. Sometimes it tasted a little funky. And once, it was a radioactive-green algae sludge so noxious that it stained my hands and my water bottle. On that occasion, I suddenly decided I wasn't thirsty after all!

I encountered the pièce de résistance just west of the California state line, at one of only three naturally-flowing sources on the entire WTH. It had just rained the day before, and I was more than a little jazzed to find a brief flow of cold, clear water in the sculpted narrows of a deep canyon. After filling all my water containers, I continued upstream, humming a jaunty little ditty. Then, around a corner, I stumbled upon a rotting burro corpse, lying right in the middle of my cheery stream. Yuck. 

I drank the water anyway.

A Big Mistake

I didn't really plan to hike the WTH this winter. But when the holidays rolled around and I found myself with a little extra time, I made a somewhat last-minute decision to squeeze in a WTH hike. I had firm commitments on both ends - Christmas on the front end, and a February family shindig on the back end. I intended to fly the day after Christmas, but the cheapest airfare I could find wasn't until December 30th, so I opted to fly cheap and hike fast.

This decision left me with only 40 days to complete the route, a relentless 20 mile-per-day pace. I knew this was a risky plan, but to start any earlier would have cost me another couple hundred bucks in airfare. I figured that I could make up a day or two along the way, even if it meant a little night-hiking. This was, of course, penny-wise and pound-foolish. A forty-day itinerary gave me zero wiggle room, which I sorely missed when El Niño dumped his entirely-foreseeable torrent of rain on the desert Southwest.

If there's one guarantee on a thru-hike, it's that something will go wrong. The trail quickly reminded me of this lesson. My bad ankle did Bad Ankle Things my first week on the trail, and I lost about half a day babying it. Then my poncho-tarp abruptly announced its retirement, and I lost another day waiting for its replacement to show up. Do a 19-mile day over tough, rocky terrain? Congratulations, you just fell further off the pace. I was behind the eight-ball from the very beginning.

RIP Original "Moak Cloak", 2014-2023

I ended up doing a lot of night-hiking on the WTH. Sometimes this wasn't a problem - a few mindless miles along a jeep road in the dead of night is no big deal. But often, the terrain precluded the possibility of night-hiking. The WTH darts in and out of many minor washes and subtle terrain features. It sometimes heads cross-country for a few miles. These navigational problems are a cinch during the day, but they become nearly impossible on a cloudy or moonless night. I spent an annoying amount of mental energy timing my days so that the post-sunset miles were easy ones.

The Fury of the Child

WTH hikers have a complicated relationship with the weather. And boy oh boy, did I ever ride the roller coaster on this trip.

On one hand, most of the water on the route is a direct result of recent runoff. In the Sonoran and Mojave deserts, much of the year's rain falls in the winter. I therefore needed the rain to recharge all the potholes and wildlife guzzlers on the route. Other hikers had reported the aforementioned dead-burro water source as "dry" a month before, leaving me with a potential 50-mile water carry. Only because of the previous day's rainstorm did I have anything to drink.

On the other hand, storms on the WTH are a special kind of miserable. Usually, terrain features squeeze most of the moisture out of the clouds before they reach the low deserts the WTH frequents. But even so, desert storms bring copious wind, which howls across the open landscape. The temperature crashes into the 40s, and suddenly it's you're in Hypothermia City once the rain starts.

This year was an El Niño winter. Warm waters off South America's west coast trigger a chain reaction across the Pacific Rim. El Niño's effects aren't uniform or always predictable, but one thing's certain: in an El Niño winter, there will be fireworks.

In this case, "fireworks" meant weeks of unrelenting, bone-chilling wind and a trio of drenching Atmospheric River events. I increased my pace still further as I neared the end of the trail, trying to buy myself a little flexibility to sit out the truly horrendous weather. And it almost worked.

At 4,500' in the Mojave National Preserve, the weather is raw indeed. I'd been keeping an eye on the weather for a week already, and knew that a significant storm was on the way. I put the pedal to the metal, trying to drop a few thousand feet before the storm hit. The day before the storm, I hiked until 9:30pm. I caught a few hours of shuteye, then got up at 3am and did ten miles before sunup

Around mid-morning, it started to rain. I'd already decided I was just going to wait out this storm in my tent. Even the best raingear can't eliminate the misery when it's 35 degrees and raining sideways. So, before long, I set up my tarp and got comfy. I put on my fluffy sleep socks, ate an enormous meal, listened to podcasts, and read scripture while the rain and wind buffeted my tarp. Thunder boomed overhead. Life was good indeed.

Red sky in the morning...

And then from nowhere, vwooooooooom. An enormous gust of wind, perhaps a thunderstorm downburst, slammed into my tent. I never even heard the tent stakes let loose. Instantly though, I was staring directly into the sky as heavy rain poured down on me. There was no time to think. I yelped, threw my shoes on, and chased after my tarp as it hurdled downwind in true prairie-schooner form. After about a hundred yards, a corner caught in a creosote bush. The tarp stood straight out like a flag, flapping in the wind. I grabbed it and raced back to my campsite. Everything I owned was saturated, and getting wetter by the second.

I had to make a decision, and fast. I was wet. My sleeping bag was wet. The temperature was forecast to crash overnight. Not great. Pell-mell, I jammed everything into my backpack and dialed Rascal.


An auxiliary benefit of spending a decade in the long-distance hiking community is that you make friends in really weird places. Such is the case with a couple I met in 2023 near Eagle Rock on the PCT. Rascal works as a field biologist in the Mojave National Preserve, and Ripper's a ranger in Joshua Tree. So when my tent turned into a sail in the middle of nowhere, Rascal was just around the corner. Due to roadway flooding concerns, she'd just left work for the day.

The long and the short of it: half an hour after getting my stuff drenched, I was sitting in Rascal's car with the heater cranked on our way to town. When we got there, I threw everything in the dryer as the rain continued to come down in torrents. Rarely have I been so grateful to be warm and dry.

But wait, there's more! After Rascal dropped me back off at the trail the next morning, I hiked for a few days before yet another atmospheric river arrived. The forecast for this one was truly apocalyptic, so I hitched to town and hung out with Rascal and Ripper again. And when I finished - you guessed it - Rascal was there to pick me up and deposit me at the airport.

Usually, "I couldn't do it without them" is nothing more than a trite platitude. As humans, we're pretty good at adapting and make-do. Perhaps it would cost a little more, or be less convenient, but we find a way. In this case however, the sentiment is sincere and literal. If not for Rascal and Ripper, I'm not sure I would have finished the WTH successfully. I owe them an enormous debt of gratitude.

If you're into Weird Desert Crap, the Mojave is the place for you.

A Slog to the Finish

By now, you might be getting the impression that my final few weeks on the WTH were a dumpster fire. And in that assessment, you'd be entirely correct. 

Of all the things you wouldn't want to lose in the middle of the Mojave desert, a windshirt would rank pretty high on the list. Let me paint you a picture.

Somewhere after leaving the amazing Turtle Mountains, I came across a 4-foot-long Super Mario Bros Mylar balloon. All wilderness travelers eventually grow to despise Mylar balloons: they're eyesores, never decompose, and drift for miles before settling down into otherwise remote and untouched landscapes. I sighed, bundled up the enormous piece of litter and crammed it in the back pocket of my pack.

Apparently though, that pocket was too full. Somewhere in the next ten miles, my windshirt must have popped out while I was wandering through the creosote in a low desert basin. By time I realized it was missing, I had zero chance of finding it again. Oh well, I only had a couple weeks left on the WTH. I'd just tough it out.

It should therefore go without saying that the wind never stopped blowing for the last two weeks of the WTH, and there wasn't a half hour that went by that I didn't chide myself for losing the windshirt. Things came to a head on my penultimate day. Winds increased throughout the day, and by evening were absolutely screaming. The prospect of sleeping with my tarp flapping furiously eight inches from my face was... unappealing. 

As the sun set, I found a mining adit, an exploratory horizontal shaft maybe 30 feet long. Its tailings pile protected the entrance from the howling winds. The floor wasn't entirely flat, but good enough for the night. When I emerged to pee in the middle of the night, it was snowing sideways. I crawled back into my cozy, quiet cave and fell back asleep. 

I ventured out in the morning to cranking winds and fresh snow. Said snow had blanketed the windward side of the Joshua trees' trunks at the upper elevations. In the delightful Wonderland of Rocks area, a normally-dry stream flowed for several miles, and dry feet were a fool's errand. The WTH clearly wanted to give me a fitting send-off!

Splendid Isolation

I've complained enough, don't you think? Let me circle back to the delights of the WTH. I saw a handful of day-hikers in Saguaro National Park on my first day on trail (a beautiful New Years Eve afternoon). I bumped into one group of day-hikers in Joshua Tree National Park on my last day on trail. In the intervening 750+ miles, I saw zero hikers. I only saw a tiny handful of vehicles on the primitive 'roads' that the WTH follows at times. Nearly every day featured a mountain range protected by Wilderness designation. In short, hiking this route felt like true exploration.

Of the route's seven towns, three of them were mere gas stations. One of them didn't even have water; two of them didn't have indoor plumbing. Civilization was but a thin strand out there. And unlike my 2021 WTH hike, fighter jets from nearby Luke AFB were only an occasional annoyance, not a continuous roar. Of course, there was one night near the end of the trail where bombing at a nearby Marine base kept me awake for hours!

Theological Ruminations

By happenstance, I spent exactly forty days in the desert. During my desert sojourn, I focused my Scripture reading on episodes where God’s people spent forty days - or forty years - in the desert. As I read, I realized that God often uses the rigors of desert life to prepare his people for what’s next. Examples!

  • God calls the descendants of Jacob out of Egypt “so that they may worship Me in the desert” (Exodus 7:16). After a miraculous deliverance, he establishes a covenant with them at Mt. Sinai. God uses Israel’s desert wanderings to transform them from a rag-tag band of slaves into God's special possession, by whom he would bring blessing to the entire world.
  • Elijah despairs at Israel’s recalcitrant idolatry even after God demonstrates his absolute superiority over all pretenders. Fleeing persecution, Elijah high-tails it to Mt. Sinai, back to the same mountain where God originally established his covenant with Israel. There, God assures Elijah that despite Israel’s apostasy, God is still working out his purposes, even using godless foreign kings at times. And God hints at the next development in his redemptive plan - to preserve a remnant for himself even as the majority of the nation backslides into idolatry and unbelief. This remnant will eventually find its focus in a single man - the God-man - Jesus of Nazareth.
  • Jesus spends forty days in the wilderness where he faces an onslaught of temptation. Unlike Israel’s misadventures with idolatry, Jesus remains faithful, succeeding where Israel failed. This, the first event following Jesus’ baptism, prepares him for his public ministry.

There are plenty of other examples, but we’d be here all day and your supper is getting cold. To be brief: on this hike, I was struck by the way in which Jesus ties all the Old Testament threads together. His 40 days in the desert don't just use convenient Biblical imagery, but rather are intended as a specific counterpoint to various Old Testament 40's. They illustrate how Jesus, a specific Israelite, embodies and fulfills Old Testament Israel's God-given vocation.

To wit: I’d always been a bit troubled by how the New Testament authors seemed to ignore the original context when applying Old Testament prophecies to Jesus. The original context often referred to events already in the past, or to more proximate future events surrounding Judah’s exile and subsequent return. For example, when Jesus was a toddler, he and his parents fled to Egypt as refugees. Upon their return, Matthew cites a passage from the prophet Hosea, “Out of Egypt I called my son”. Matthew employs this quotation to illustrate how Jesus fulfilled Old Testament prophecies. But in the original prophetic context, it’s clearly a backward-looking passage describing what God already did centuries ago: calling Israel, his metaphorical “son”, out of Egypt. There’s no indication that the prophet is anticipating a future event, much less that the “son” would refer to the incarnate Son himself, e.g. the second person of the Trinity.

Akin to real estate, the first three principles of Biblical interpretation are context, context, and context. Yet here we see Matthew ostensibly ignoring the original context. Is he just plucking a convenient turn-of-phrase out of the Old Testament to serve as a shoddy proof-text? For a long time I couldn’t make sense of this puzzle - how the New Testament could repeatedly apply Old Testament prophecies to Jesus, even when the original meaning obviously referred to something else, usually Israel itself.

During this hike though, something clicked. I finally understood that these passages rightfully apply to Jesus not despite the fact that they originally applied to Israel, but because they originally applied to Israel. A main point of Jesus’s messiahship is that he lives and embodies the story of Israel. Where Israel failed in proclaiming God’s kingship on Earth, Jesus succeeds - not only in proclaiming the kingdom, but in being the King himself. Because Jesus is living out Israel’s story, the motifs and prophecies that originally applied to Israel apply to Jesus too. In fact, these passages find their fullest flowering not in the proximate fulfillment of exile and return, but in Jesus’ messiahship.

Anyway, that's your dose of theology for the day. Thanks for coming to my TED talk 🙂

What’s Next:

The WTH is a nascent route and information is scarce, aside from Blisterfree's foundational writings. In an upcoming post, I hope to contribute to the corpus of WTH literature with some advice for future hikers. 

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