From a Distance

An essay from the August 2017 issue of Arizona Highways. | By Kelly Vaughn | Photograph by Guy Schmickle

From a Distance

The rain started as a mist. It ended that way, too. In between, though, it was something so violent, the mountains seemed to huddle and shrink beneath it.

Although nature teaches us that water is elemental softness, when it pairs with a hammering wind and the energy of lightning, it becomes the slicing, abrasive blade that renders sweet, beautiful lines against Earth’s skin. Canyons. Valleys. The start of something long ago and future still.

This was a wild late-September storm — built, it seemed, from the belly of the sky. A great rumbling thing, I’d have to drive through it if I hoped to get home to Phoenix before dark.

It frightened me.

Still, I went, because the idea of home was stronger than the weather. I had been to the Vermilion Cliffs and Marble Canyon, had explored the long reaches of the state, had eaten too little in too many days. In short, I was done with it.

But the rain was just beginning.

For hours I drove south and west a little. Bold pellets of water pounded the windshield. Visibility was just an idea. The sky rattled and shook. And the car pushed against the squall.

Northeast of Flagstaff, though, somewhere on the Navajo Nation, the clouds and I rested. I pulled off the highway and onto a wide spot and watched as the sky spun itself semi-clear.

After a few minutes, there was a lull in the metronomic tempo of the windshield wipers. And I could see — miles away, still — the rise of the San Francisco Peaks.

Home. Home. I am nearly home, my thoughts as the road opened up.

In reality, it’s a little more than 150 miles from my house to the roads that lead to the Peaks — Humphreys, Agassiz, Fremont, Abineau, Rees, Schultz, Doyle. Still, and from that great distance, I consider the mountains a sort of spiritual home. Not in the sense that they are to Arizona’s Native people, who believe the Peaks to be sacred, ceremonial, the home of their Katsinam, but rather in the sense that they are, for me, where I woke to the idea of marrying my life to wilderness somehow.

That happened because I saw them — when I was so much younger than I am now — topped with the whip of winter snow.

I hadn’t seen the white stuff in so long, having been bred of the Arizona desert, of New Orleans, of Texas. And I don’t remember why I was going to Flagstaff or where I was going after, but I do remember how that snow made me believe that maybe the Peaks were a place to visit when I needed to breathe, that maybe I could do things there that I couldn’t do in the city.

I learned later that you could ski within the Peaks, snowshoe, ski-mountaineer, so they became a place of opportunity.

Years since, and so much older now, I’ve neither skied nor snowshoed nor ski-mountaineered in Arizona. These are the things for the list in my head. For now, I run to the Peaks in other seasons. And always, from that highway moment I see them rise over the rest of the landscape or peek through the clouds, my head clears a little.

One August, I joined a small group of old and new and now long-lost friends for my first hike to the summit of Humphreys Peak. Cresting a hill on Interstate 17, I saw the Peaks beyond the burnt-orange mesas of Sedona. Even from that distance, my heart began to race again. I knew that the trail ahead of me would be difficult, despite having trained for it — climbing to an elevation of 12,633 feet requires lungs I wasn’t sure I had.

Hours later, I learned I did, crossing beyond the tree line and up into the swirling fog that danced from Doyle Saddle to the summit. From the top, the world below looked so much bigger than it does when you’re standing in it, and I smiled when I realized we were above the birds that circled a few hundred feet below.

As we made our way down the trail, feet and knees feeling the push, the group was mostly quiet. But when we re-entered the forest, switchbacking down toward that lush summer meadow that signals the end of the journey, a woman from another group screamed into her cellphone, and her mother yelled back. Finally, I barked at her, and the woods were hushed again. Birds only, the dull echo of footsteps and breath.

If you wouldn’t yell into a receiver in a cathedral, you shouldn’t yell into a receiver in the wild. Being there is akin, to some people, to being in a place of worship.

In the time since that first visit to the Peaks, I’ve returned often: to camp at Freidlein Prairie; to journey with my children along the segment of the Arizona Trail I first ran with a famous endurance athlete; to climb again alone, and with family and friends, that peak I first saw decked in snow.

Each time I’m there, I feel a change in my body, in my brain. It’s an opening, an awakening, a new sense of calm. A reason to return.

Just recently, I was driving again. A long loop around North-Central Arizona. I could see the Peaks from I-17, of course. From Lake Mary Road. From State Route 89A. On Interstate 40, gusts of wind blew thick clouds of dirt across the windshield, and I could taste sand. I was stressed and tired, racing once more against the dark.

Then, near Winslow, I saw them. And remembered that the road home wasn’t so long.