FROM SCOTTSDALE, ARIZONA
Training for Montenegro, Peru: Hiking the McDowell's
SCOTTSDALE, Apr 26, 2008 - I have always had close relationships with mountains even before I became aware of it in this world. When Edmund Hillary became the first man to climb Mount Everest in 1953, I remember as a little tyke drawing the pictures over and over again depicting the shape of the world's tallest mountain in my scratch pad. I was just mesmerized with it. Later on, beautiful mountains, like those in Montenegro or the Canadian Rockies, always filled me with awe of their majestic beauty and rugged power. And when I first saw the photo of Machu Picchu many years ago, I felt a deep connection with the ancient place that I had never visited.
It was only in the last two to three decades that I began to understand the reason for my affinity for and connection to the tall powerful mountains. You see, there is a mountain in northern Montenegro named Djurdjevic Tara...
That's where my Serbian ancestors settled after the Battle of Kosovo in 1389 (see above map, photos, and Djurdjevic family history). The mother of my daughters used to throw her arms up in fake exasperation, "oh, the Montenegro mountain men!" - when she disapproved of some of my occasional demonstrations of raw power or rugged bluntness.
In 1990, I found out from a history expert in Belgrade that, before Montenegro, my ancestors were nobles with estates in southern Macedonia-northern Greece, near the birthplace of Alexander the Great (right). Even though the Djurdjevic's eventually migrated northward and settled around Belgrade, Serbia, they were known as the "Greeks" among the local population. I never understood why until 1990, when I found this connection to northern Greece and Alexander the Great.
And before that, there might have been a connection to the desert mountains in Assyria (above)...
How do I know all that? For the last 700 years, through family lore. And before that, thanks to Al-Khadir.
It's okay if you've never heard of him. Most people haven't. I had not, either, until I met Heather, an Inka Shaman, in early January. But ever since, Al-Khadir has been the guiding force in my life, as he had been before, too, even though I was not aware of it.
And what happened on January 6?
As I walked into Heather's office in Sedona, she said that even before she had seen me, there was a white light around me from which a vision of a man emerged. "I am Al-Khadir," he said. "Tell Bob that to find out more about me and he will understand his life."
Wow. Talk about a potent entrance! Yet, I was totally unaware of it at that point.
"Who is Al-Khadir?" I asked, after Heather told me about it, about two hours later.
"You know, Al-Khadir - the Lord of the Mountain," she explained.
Well, I didn't know it at the time. But as I have found out in the last three months, Al-Khadir in Arabic stands for Green Man. He was also known as St. George from the Knights Templar era, or the Peacock Angel before that. Here's what a renowned scholar and author of ancient mystery and mythology books, Mark Amaru Pinkham, told me about it in early March, when I questioned him about Al-Khadir's connection to Peru, Machu Picchu and the other Holy Mountains:
Al-Khadir is also known as Peacock Angel in some ancient cultures, like Yzedis or in India (Sri Lanka).
SCOTTSDALE, Apr 26, 2008 - I woke up this morning well rested, but without any momentous dreams or important signs emanating from them. As I watered the roses in my back yard, I noticed that where used to be one dove laying on a nest under the grapefruit tree a few weeks ago (click on the picture to enlarge), there were now two. They fluttered away as I walked by. So either the father has returned, or the young chick is already flying by itself. Anyway, I stored that thought in the back of my mind as I went about my leisurely Saturday.
I read this morning again the tips from the organizers of my expedition to Machu Picchu and other Holy Mountains' in Peru, and found them just as daunting as the first time I saw them. As a city slicker and a desert rat, I felt like a babe in the woods in this high mountain hiking and camping environment. I don't mind getting banged up and dirty and sweaty and full of cactus and other thorns, but hiking at 16,000 feet? Well, it will be a challenge, but one I am looking forward to.
So I decided to go to the REI store and start my high mountain hiking and camping education early. The first thing I saw was a "Camelbak" backpack with a built-in 3-litre water bag. "Hm..." I thought. "Maybe it's time to replace my 16-year old belt with a water bottle that my younger daughter Emily bought for her Costa Rica trip in 1992." It's pretty much in shreds and tatters by now. I also thought the brand name ("Camelbak") was auspicious even if they can't spell. :-) So I bought the backpack for my bike rides and hiking here in the desert from a nice fellow-biker (Stan).
I then talked for probably half an hour to a very knowledgeable young man (Dustin) about what kind of gear I would need for high mountain hiking and camping. I did not buy anything, but he marked for me on their catalogue printout the items he would want to have if he were doing it (which he has done before). He led me to another nice man (John) in the shoe department. I did buy a pair of Gortex hiking boots as I wanted to break them in before my Peru trip. I even kept them on. Might as well start breaking them in right away, I figured.
Then as I was walking out of the store, an idea flashed through my brain. It was another mountain call. This time, McDowell Mountains were calling me. So I decided to go home, get my new backpack ready and filled with water, and then go for a hike through McDowell Mtns, just back of my DC Ranch Village Club (see the map below).
I have piddled around the McDowell Mtns foothills before, but have never really gone on a hike there. So it was to be a new experience for me and a challenge of the unknown. I was excited and looking forward to it. My heart was singing with joy as I was ascending the lower slopes and praying out loud to Al-Khadir and his various incarnations (St. George, Peacock Angel, Sanat Kumara, Green Man, Osiris, Khali- the black Goddess... whom I always mention by name, lest any of them gets upset with me by omission). :-) I thanked A-K for His guidance and for making me aware of His presence inside of me. Then I said, "I love you and trust you implicitly. If you tell me to, I will walk through the driest desert and through the deepest ocean knowing that you will always be there to protect me."
Little did I know how quickly this would happen. After about half an hour of walking through the desert, I looked at my legs and new shoes. They were full of thorns. "Not much of a trail," I remember thinking. Then I chuckled at the thought of Moses wondering through the desert for 40 years and of all the thorns he must have collected. Silly thoughts like that, kept coming to me as my heart was light and my mood playful. The outside temperature was about 95F but I did not feel it nor know it at the time.
I loved the solitude of the McDowell Mtns desert. Unlike Camelback, where you see hikers and other signs of modern life all the time, the only thing around me here was the Sonoran Desert in its springtime splendor. The only sound I could here was the buzz of insect. The only evidence of other forms of life were occasional droppings on the ground, smaller ones of coyotes, the bigger ones of mountain lions. No birds. No airplanes. No It was me and myself, hiking alone in the McDowell's. Oops... I forgot Al-Khadir. Sorry. He was also there with me. My only regret was that I did not bring my camera so I could record my first ever McDowell Mtn experience. "Oh well, the next time..." I thought. I already knew there will be many "next times."
By now I was deep into the mountains, walking through what looked like a fairly wide gorge. There was gulch in the middle of it, a dry wash (an "arroyo," as the Mexicans call it). I decided to cross it and continue hiking on its left bank. Just as I climbed up on the other side of the gulch, I heard a flutter of wings. Two doves flew out of the underbrush and landed on a nearby tree.
"Here we go again," I thought. "I am in the middle of nowhere, and suddenly the doves appear again." I paused and looked at them. "Are you trying to tell me something?" I asked. I knew that doves are believed to be the Spirit's messengers, and have, in fact, experienced some of that on Camelback Mtn myself recently. "Okay, I'll follow you and see what happens."
As if following my thoughts, as soon as I stepped toward them, the two doves flew away again, this time across the arroyo to the other side. They landed on another tree, maybe 100-150 yards away. I looked down. The place looked foreboding. There was a steep drop here, maybe 25-30 feet to the bottom of the arroyo, not exactly an ideal place to cross it. "Okay Al-Khadir," I said. "I said I'd follow you anywhere, so here we go. If I get down there, you'd better get me up in one piece and without broken bones."
He did. When I climbed up on the other side, I looked up toward the tree on which the doves had landed. And then my jaw dropped. I saw the trail there. The tree was right on it. I had been walking all this time through the desert way off course. No wonder I got all those thorns embedded in my shoes, socks and legs. So the doves led me to the trail.
"Wow," I thought. "That's pretty amazing. Thank you Al-Khadir. I said I'd follow you anywhere, but did not realize you'd put it to a test so soon."
Several other doves appeared from out of nowhere and fluttered around me. "They must be nesting somewhere around here," I thought.
I pulled out as many thorns as I could out of my body and the shoes, and continued my hike the rest of the way on the trail. I eventually ended up at a summit of sorts called the Gateway Saddle. There was a beautiful view of the city and the western Valley of the Sun vistas from there. As it was getting late in the afternoon (around 4:15), the sun was also getting lower on that side of the horizon. I decided to rest here for a few minutes and say my prayers to the four winds, as I did at my "prayer rocks" on Camelback on Apr 2 (which is the way the Inka Shamans pray in Peru and elsewhere):
I did not use these exact words, I made up my own in the spirit of this prayer. But I am reproducing them here so you'd have an idea what the prayer is about. I also made a mental note to print them out, maybe customize them permanently with my own thoughts, and then carry them in my backpack for other trips, including the one to Peru.
As I was saying my prayer to the South, I heard a chirping sound of a small bird. I could not see it, but the sound was coming form a saguaro about 100 yards away. Then as I was saying my prayer to the West, I felt a strong wind blowing against my face. "Wonder what these signs mean?" I remember thinking. And then I headed back down the trail toward the Club.
As I was passing that area where the two doves appeared to me, I was wondering if they'll still be there. One of them was. She fluttered again to a nearby tree. As I was talking to her sweetly, I heard the sound of another bird coming from the same tree, but behind her. It was a different call... a single long note. I walked on a bit to see if I can get a better angle at that bird. It was a quail! I have never seen quails in the desert before. Suddenly I began to feel as if I were becoming an aviary magnet. :-)
The rest of the way down, I collected four rocks that I will add to my "mesa." I decided I will have four of them from Camelback, four from the McDowell's, four from the Djurdjevic Mtn in Montenegro, and one in the middle - the shiny quartz from Westchester, New York, that I brought back from my last trip.
Other than that, my descent was uneventful. Well, not quite. As I was crossing the parking lot on the way to the Clubhouse, a vision of loveliness spoke to me. A young woman, with a face that was a mixture of Caucasian and Asian features, wearing a short airy cream-colored summer dress that was flowing around her curves like a ballet costume, asked me, "did you just come down from a hike?"
"I did," I replied. We chatted for a while about it. And then we went on our way.
"What's your name?" I asked.
"I am Bob."
"Hi, Bob. Nice to meet you."
Michelle looked way to young for me, but she was one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen - the icing on the cake of a lovely McDowell's hike, thorns and all.
All around, my first training session for Peru amounted to about 6 miles with a 4,000 foot elevation difference in 2 hours in 95 degree weather. "Next time, you have to do it in Flagstaff," said Heather, my Inka Shaman friend, when we talked about it on Saturday evening. Indeed, that's not quite 16,000 feet like the Ausangate Pass in Peru, but at 10,000 to 12,000 feet, the San Francisco Peaks are high enough.
"BRRRR.... though" thought this desert rat. :-) "Gotta get some of that cold weather gear first."
SCOTTSDALE, Apr 28 - I told you I'd be back on the McDowell Mountains again. Just didn't know how soon. Mountains have a strange effect on me. Like magnets. Once I get under my skin... they keep pulling me back. [Funny, I can also think of some women who had had the same effect. Hm... :-) ] What was supposed to be just a little few hikes to break in my new boots, now may end up being a series of "training sessions" that may wear them out before the "main tent" event (Peru). :-)
Oh well... It's all good fun. At least mountains don't break your heart. Okay, okay... I know. I've left enough blood on the mountains to realize that they can break your bones and tear your muscles and skin to pieces. But flesh and bones seem to mend more easily than broken hearts. Enough metaphors...
By now, you can probably tell what frame of mind I was in when I set off on this hike. My fully-mended heart was bursting with joy. Unlike two days ago, I did take my camera with me today. So you'll be able to join me visually in this expedition. And then I realized just how stupid I was. I did have my cell phone with me on Saturday. It has a perfectly good camera (as you can see by this shot I took today - right). But I never think of my cell phone as a camera.
I also remembered to pack some trail mix this time. Which turned out not to be such a hot idea, as you will see shortly. Okay, off we are...
First, a panoramic view of McDowell's I took today from Fwy 101 at about Scottsdale Rd, looking east. Second, remember the Saturday map? Here it is again. Just add the loop around Gateway Peak, and about 30 mins to total time. So today's hike was 2.5 hours vs. 2 hours on Saturday.
And now here's what the mountains looked like at the start of the trail. I marked the approximate route on it (far left). I don't know if it is just me, but every Arizona mountain I hike seems to have some sort of a "Nipple Peak" (middle left - also check my Sedona and Tucson hikes for additional examples). The middle right photo gives you a better feel for the looping Gateway trail. And the right most photo in the above sequence was taken from about half way up the mountain.
Close to the Gateway Saddle views start to get really interesting. Local Valley residents may recognize some landmarks in the distance. As I was approaching the summit ("Gateway Saddle" - middle right), my iPod was aptly playing Antonin Dvorak's beautiful Slavonic Dance No. 2 in E minor op. 72 (click on it to listen a YouTube version of it). The last chords of this exquisite piece of music died off as I stepped onto the Saddle. It seemed as if God were directing the "iPod Philharmonic." :-) For it was a wonderful prelude to what was to come...
It was here at the Saddle where once again I said my prayers to the Four Winds (the four directions and four sacred animals - see above), as well as to the Earth and the Heavens - which is the way the Inka Shamans pray in Peru and elsewhere.
Then I headed down the mountain, but this time following the Gateway loop...
... first to the southeast (left two photos), and then straight south, where in the distance you can see "my mountain" - Camelback (middle right), and a bit later on also Squaw Peak (right).
It was at about his point that I was starting to get hungry, having been on the trail for over 90 minutes. So I reached for my bag of trail mix. What a mess! Don't ever buy trail mix that has chocolate in it for hiking in the Arizona desert. I should have known better, having lived here for nearly three decades now. By the time I got two handfuls of trail mix, my hands were covered in melted chocolate and my face looked like the two-year old Nikolai when he dips into Godiva's delights. It's a good thing I brought a small towel (for heat and to soften the pressure of the backpack harness). By the time I was finished wiping myself off, the white towel had changed color to beige. Or a Dalmatian, if you want to be more accurate. :-)
That's when I saw a most amazing sight, a light that seemed almost ethereal (left). From that, sprung the idea for another "Love & Light" image design (right), my new sign-off phrase for some of you.
Once at the bottom of Gateway Mtn, I took a picture looking up, so you can see what I had just climbed (left). And then I was back at the DC Ranch Village Club from where I started 2.5 hours earlier. Oh, yes... in case you're wondering if that's a club for the disabled people of Scottsdale, I've been asking myself the same thing for years. They have more disabled parking spaces here than at shopping malls or ball games (middle left). But not everybody gets exercised here, not over parking spaces nor anything else. The young woman floating in concrete on that tube doesn't seem to have a worry in the world (middle right). Finally, just before I left the Club, a sunset had lit up the McDowell Mountains in the the east like a giant floodlight (right). The scene was just spectacular. I took this picture from the Club's balcony overlooking the pool area.
Back home, I took two more pictures that are worthy of note. First, of the beautiful red hibiscus flowers that wrapped themselves around a giant mesquite tree in my back yard. Second, of my own "Great Arch," right next to the hibiscus bush. Who is to say that St. Louis is the only place in the U.S. with a Great Arch? Or the more romantic among you may think of this nature's sculpture as "kissing cacti". But don't ask me what I had to do to induce them to do it. That's a secret. What happens at Grayhawk, stays at Grayhawk... :-) [On the other hand, if you want to guess what I did - guess away! And let me know].