There are spots on the Tonto Trail where the path fades to nothing. Experienced guides tell us to follow the path of least resistance, it's where the Tonto always goes. In the constant heat of this rolling plateau—halfway between Grand Canyon rim and Colorado River—the trail morphs into a sentient being. If it were a person, it would be skinny. Very skinny. I find myself talking aloud to the Tonto. Curiously, it talks back.
I have plenty of water but the heat suddenly gets serious. One minute I'm cruising along and then I stop. I realize that the line between life and death is thinner here than is the trail itself. I take a swig of water. The sun has heated it to bath temperature. One's eyes calibrate to the faintness of the trail. The tiniest discoloration signifies our direction. The Tonto is whispering and if we don't listen we could be in trouble. Getting lost out here is not an option. There's no shade, no water, no other hikers. A short detour would be annoying. Getting profoundly lost would mean dehydration and heat stroke—at best.
The Tonto is a trickster. It lulls you onto its gently, rolling path. In early morning the air is fresh, the day seems promising. A gentle canyon breeze tickles the imagination. We could hike forever, a little voice tells me. The trail meanders like a lazy creek out into the horizon of nowhere. It is impossible to resist. A mile of this gets us hooked. Then, suddenly the nowhere turns into a wash—a deep gash in the plateau. The trail brushes against the wash the way my cat affectionately nudges my legs. I blink as I look down. The scale is hard to reconcile but I figure it's a thousand feet straight down. The Trickster laughs wheezily—is it the wind or the trail or the heat? I wonder how the Grim Reaper might laugh. We tiptoe past the wash, focusing intensely on the faint trail.
We wind our way back to the rolling plateau, taking a deep, deep breath of relief in the arid air. Those washes are ubiquitous on the Tonto. Every mile or so the trail moves outward toward the rim to circumnavigate another wash. The path of least resistance.
Fresh morning turns quickly to hot desert. I blink and realize where I am. It is utter desolation and it is hot. The heat shimmers in the distance. I blink again to make the bushes stand still. "Another swig of water!" I tell myself. I'm afraid a white unicorn might walk in from the nowhere horizon at any moment, a phenomenon I'd like to avoid. The breeze is gone. The Trickster is silent. The heat changes everything. My step loses its bounce. I start to trip over small rocks. It becomes a kind of goofy dance with the Tonto.
I might be done with the Tonto but it's hardly done with me. The shimmering horizon gives way to yet another wash. This one requires us to navigate through a field of boulders. My tired legs pound their way through them and up the other side of the wash. The dry bed where water once cut its path makes me even hotter.
On the other side I finally see our destination. An oasis of trees means water, shade, and rest. A cluster of twenty trees looks like a forest out here—a magical, black forest filled with life. My step quickens as I reach the shade. The temperature instantly drops fifteen degrees. I walk into the cluster of trees, my vision becoming clearer. The Tonto has delivered me yet again. The effects of the heat slowly diminish but it's still very warm in the shade. I just hope there are no unicorns in these woods.