Blue sky pops the rocky summit of Humphreys Peak into three-dimensional glory.
The hum of the Scenic Skyride mixes with conversations and the rhythms of piped music coming from the Agassiz Lodge at the Arizona Snowbowl.
Air stands still while the smell of pine fills the nose. I wash away the taste of dust with a swig of water. The bugs have already started to move.
I set my pack firmly to back and give a gander to my wife, Lisa.
She tells me she usually spends Sundays resting. In Lisa-ese, that means she's ready.
We're off, and our trek up to the top of Arizona has begun.
TO THE SADDLE
The journey begins innocently enough. Gradual ascent through forest. Grade is steep, but once footfalls find the obligatory cadence, all is well, and metronome muse silences the mind. Feeling good, I suddenly hear a pipe wrench whiz at me from nowhere.
"Can you carry me?" Lisa asks.
I laugh and we move on. Little do I know ...
People pass on the way down. Their eyes sink a bit deeply into their sockets. The "good morning" they issue comes out as if from a traveler weary from a long journey. Even the canine variety of hikers pant and shuffle along with heads down.
An hour passes. Lisa makes an occasional "oof" or "ouch" from behind me. She complains about how she shouldn't have taken that hip-opener class at yoga the day before.
As we near the Saddle, the pines squat low on the mountain side. Windswept, their trunks remind me of Sumo wrestlers in fighting position. Only the heftiest of blows would knock these suckers over.
The trees finally give way to hard scrabble and rock. The pitch steepens. Breath in the thinning air comes faster. Sweat beads, stings the eyes, drips off the nose.
Lisa asks a trio of hikers how much farther it is to the top. Their answer sets her jaw. I sense grim from her. She glares at me. Not good.
And then we're atop the Saddle. Hikers mill about taking in the magnificence of panorama. The ridge line curls to my right and ends in our destination. It beckons me.
"Can we stop here?" Lisa asks.
"It's just a bit farther," I say. I don't know I'm lying. But, then again, distance is relative, isn't it?
THE SUMMIT NEARS
The path turns to rock and boulder. Rock slides scar the mountain. Trees are gone, but bugs still remain. A few squat plants with yellow flowers cling to the landscape.
"This isn't hiking," Lisa says, pulling herself up boulders.
She adds that she wishes she were a bird temporarily. I point to a peak and tell her we're not far now. How was I to know that it wasn't the summit?
After we pass the false peak, the summit comes into view. A line of hikers stretches along the tricky slabs and stones. Lisa wants to turn around. I encourage her to press on, knowing I'll get an earful later. She's a trooper. She keeps on moving.
And then we're at the summit. Wind cools the sweat on my cotton T-shirt. More than a dozen hikers eat and talk, and conversations are of the views, of training for higher peaks. Some sit in silence. Lisa and I take refuge from the breeze behind one of the stone wind breaks, and I sense she silently wants to rap my knuckles with a ruler.
We wolf down chicken, bananas, nuts and granola while hydrating with some of the best tasting tap water I've ever sampled.
We took two hours and 15 minutes to get here. But, we're only halfway done. I take in one last look from the top of Arizona. We put on our packs and make our way down.
THE TRUDGE DOWN
I hear the following in relatively normal flow:
"Where are the mules when you need them?"
"Can we call for a helicopter?"
"Can we stop now?"
Rewind the landscape. The stony surface turns to squat trees turns to rocky forest turns to lush green ground with conifer canopy providing shade.
Lisa says she wishes she had a "real trail" to walk on. Her feet hurt. Her legs hurt. She reiterates the need for a mule. She mentions she's too old to be an "outside girl." She suggests that I go on ahead and get the car. It's a four-wheel drive, isn't it? The trudge down again is marked with "oof" and "ouch" from behind me.
Then, it's over. We've made it up and down Humphreys Peak in less than five hours. I let the accomplishment set in and smile.
Lisa's hungry. Her arms are folded and her chin is set against her chest.
"Want to try the Ski Lift Lodge?"
She brightens and mentions we've never eaten there before. Grim gives way to sunlight. While eating chicken wings and nachos, she reflects on the accomplishment and on the stellar workout. My legs are two spaghetti noodles, and my knees scream like they've been hit by a Mafioso with a baseball bat wanting to collect on a debt.
She hardly complains. It figures.
Hugs and kisses later, grim is gone. I get a "I hope I didn't ruin your hike with my whining."
Note to self: Let Lisa spend Sundays resting.
Larry Hendricks can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 556-2262.
Humphreys Peak Trail
Length: 9 miles (round trip)
Level: Strenuous (more than 3,000 feet in elevation change)
Time: 5 to 6 hours
Use: Moderate to heavy
Season: Late spring to early fall
Information: Visit www.fs.fed.us/r3/coconino/recreation/peaks/humphreys-tr.shtml, or call Peaks Ranger Station, 5075 N. Highway 89, (928) 526-0866.