Pretty much every single day, I wind up thinking about all the things I need to do. Rework all the pages on the website, improve the contact form, test and implement the new payment gateway, scoop the litter boxes, do the dishes, replace the rear window defroster switch in the truck that keeps turning on and off all the time on its own, maybe actually pass emissions… I could go on, but so could you, right?
I’ve wanted to check out Tom’s Thumb since before I even knew what it was called. It was about eight years ago I first noticed the prominent rock feature way, way up on a ridge in the McDowell Mountains northeast of Scottsdale. Anytime I’d be traveling eastbound across northern Scottsdale on the 101, I’d glance up and briefly daydream about one day climbing all the way up that mountain to see it up close. Then I discovered, not only did it have a name, but there’s actually an established – and popular – hiking trail right to it from the other side. When I learned my friends were planning to make the hike, I made sure I could go too.
Considered a moderate trail by ArizonaHiking.org, this trail is a little over 4 miles (6km) round trip. The challenge, however, is the 1000ft (300M) difference in elevation between the trailhead and thumb. As a
recovering smoker, I knew I would pay dearly for my cardiovascular indiscretions, but having dreamt of doing this for nearly a decade, I was damned if I’d let an opportunity to cross this one of my bucket list pass me by.
Within 15 minutes, the group had left me behind. Not to say they ditched me, but combine a pack-a-day habit for the better part of a year (fell off the wagon in April or May of last year) with a largely sedentary lifestyle and it’s easy to see how I just couldn’t keep up. No matter. As much as this was about doing this hike with them, it was also a very personal event for me. I told them not to wait.
The first third of the trail would prove the most difficult. Switchback after switchback, the narrow dirt track snaked its way up to the first ridge. I lost sight of my group and got passed by countless healthier people. I was likely the slowest person on the trail that morning. I could feel my pulse inside my head, and hear my heart beating like lifter tick on a poorly maintained DSM. I was dripping in sweat and wanted to turn around and go back down to the truck.
I felt like a complete failure. Growing up, I was never the physically fit kid, but I was always out playing. I’d ride my bike – a single speed, BMX jobber, by the way; never had a 10-speed or MTB – 15-20 miles (24-32km) round trip to visit friends in Germany. I’d hike 5-10 miles (8-10km) up into the base of the Franklin Mountains with my dad back when we lived in El Paso. Here I was, all grown up, and ready to give up after a half mile (0.8km) of uphill effort. There was no turning back, though. Not because my friends would laugh at me, or because anyone can impose the shame of failure on me moreso than I do myself, but because the objective of this hike was on my bucket list.
Pausing to catch my breath for probably the 10th time in a half mile, I took in my surroundings once again. To the north and east, the Mogollon Rim and Colorado Plateau seemed small, a cool, purple-grey frame for the warm, brown-green desert foreground directly below me; the copper roof of the Tom’s Thumb trailhead merely an orangish lego brick with a thin ribbon of road leading to it. Yes, I was on the verge of collapse, but look how far I’d come! Surely a view like this is worth a little suffering! And the view from the top would remain in memory long after my body recovered from this abuse.
Sense of relative accomplishment was small comfort, but it triggered further optimism. Sure, in a way, I was stalling, but I thought to myself, “This is murder-death-kill, but I’m halfway up a mountain on a fantastic morning, with a view most people will never know – and it’s gonna get even better the more I push myself.” Across the valley to the west, Tom’s Thumb, and the rock field surrounding it, was bathed in golden sunlight, looking like an Arizona version of the Moon. To the south, imposing boulders blocked out the sun on me.
“This is something I’ve wanted to do for years. I’m not getting this close and quitting.” I pressed on, taking tiny steps and stopping to
catch my breath let faster traffic pass often. In the saddle of an interconnecting ridge, I caught up with my friends. We ate Clementines and talked about how it was that other guy’s Jack Russell Terrier who started the commotion I heard echoing off the hillsides half an hour before. Then we all resumed the hike together. It was easier, but not by much. The trail almost immediately started climbing steeply again and, within minutes, my friends were gone.
Now weaving around, under, and through various rock formations, I really couldn’t see anyone else on the trail who wasn’t within arm’s reach. The rocks were so big and so close, not only could I no longer see my friends, I couldn’t see Tom’s Thumb either. It was like navigating a giant maze, only, one with the right path clearly marked.
I never gave up. I agreed with the part of me saying this was pure, straight sadism, and I convinced that part of me wanting to quit to press on regardless, partly by pointing out how all the suffering and humiliation would be for nothing if I did, and partly by agreeing to just take tiny steps until reaching the summit.
After 8+ years, I had reached Tom’s Thumb and was looking out across the Valley of the Sun like a boss. The sun was shining, there was gentle, cooling breeze rushing up the west face to meet me, and I got to savor beating my friends to the objective by a good 20 minutes, since I noticed the sign that basically said, Tom’s Thumb: This way that they missed.
Tiny steps might not seem like much, but put enough of them together and you can move mountains – or at least get yourself up and over them. My friends and I explored the summit for a bit and found “the Ogre’s Den,” where I signed the log book. That was my mark on the mountain. After another round of Clementines and water, I got left behind on the descent – uphill is cardio, downhill is resistance.
Four days later, when my legs no longer felt wooden and bruised, when life settled back into it’s normal, smoke-filled, sedentary routine, I still remember how it felt to stand on top of the world. And I want to do it again. Tiny steps can move mountains or help you up them. Best of all, as those little steps result in more and more achievement, you find yourself wanting to take more and larger steps. At least, I do, anyway.
Those to do lists we’ve all got, with all the things piling up on our shoulders every day? Well, it’s like Confucius said, “It does not matter how slow you go so long as you do not stop.” Really, all we have to do is start. And take tiny little steps.