Every morning around 6 am, I hike up Piestewa Peak, the second highest mountain in Phoenix, Arizona. The mountain was formerly known as Squaw Peak and personally, I like this name better.
The 2612 foot high mountain range consists mainly of schist stones formed fourteen million years ago. An incredible force must have pushed them upwards and this force can still be seen and felt on the many sharp edged flat parallel slabs pointing in the same direction. In some places, dark, black blocks of rocks stacked on each other create towers and bizarre rock formations, pushing upwards like the Saguaro cacti growing on its slopes.
The path is uneven and steep and every step needs concentration. Stairs made out of natural rocks alternate with the remains of a slowly deteriorating cemented path. Sometimes, a white–beige rock pulls upwards like a vein and where the path touches this white surface, the countless steps of hikers have polished some areas to shiny marble segments. The path with the many man-made steps – somebody called it a Stairmaster – tames the mountain for the hikers but up on the top, the shear wild beauty is still there. Several peaks formed by hard, grey rock push upwards toward the sky and provide a stunning view into the Valley of the Sun. Nothing grows anymore up there except for clumps of desert grass in some cracks.
At 6 am, the mountain range still lies like an island of darkness in an ocean of millions of city lights. The light from the city and the light from stars and the moon give the mountains shape and form. Even in the early morning hours, the mountain has visitors who use headlamps and flashlights to see on the path. From far below they look like walking stars. I myself do not walk with a light because I want to witness the gradual change from dark to light, which is always a miraculous event.
When the first red stripes appear in the eastern sky, the rocks step out of their darkness and appear as one shade of grey. Out of the grey also step the Saguaro cacti and the Creosote bush, the Brittle bush and the Barrel cacti. When the sky behind Camelback Mountain becomes lighter and lighter, the rocks transform into their specific shapes and colors. But the real transformation happens when the sun rises behind Camelback Mountain. Then, her rays hit the rocks and the plants and me walking on the path. Suddenly, a long shadow appears and my shadow walks on purple, white and blue stones surrounded by the warm glow of the formerly distant rocks. Every Saguaro cactus glows with a halo around its thorny surface and the Barrel cacti seem to be on fire.
When the sun rises, the owls stop their low hoots and the day birds start to chirp. One time, I saw two buzzards sitting on a distant rocky ledge singing the most beautiful song. The song started with a high C and went down one octave like on a ladder of tones with each tone a distinct and marvelous sound. Another time, a woodpecker landed on a withered branch in front of me. Brown feathered Cactus Wrens are often hopping between the rocks and desert plants. Ground squirrels sometimes chase each other and disappear in their little holes and caves. I have never seen a rattlesnake on the path nor do I ever spot a scorpion. It is winter now and they hide under rocks and in caves.
Walking the mountain is a feast for the senses. Especially after rain, the desert smell is breathtaking; the whole air vibrates and sings the Symphony of the Sonoran desert. Then, the green trunks and branches of the Palo Verde trees become an example of pure vitality and the dark rocks take on a black, mysterious glow. Most of the people, especially in the morning, go up for exercise. They are fast.
“How many minutes did it take ?” I heard on the top of the mountain.
“28 minutes” the guy in shorts responded.
Some hikers carry exercise trackers or a cell phone on their arm. “You have gone 0.7 miles” announced a computerized voice to a young woman passing me one time.
I myself do not walk up for speed. Lately, I do not even look at the watch anymore. For me, walking is meditation. Watching the breath, being aware of my steps, feeling the rocks, feeling the hips, knees, the toes, feeling into the movement of the body in accordance with the breath and the mountain; this is my focus. Every day, regardless of the challenges I face, I walk up the mountain; I simply just walk. Everybody passes me, often with an “excuse me” or “sorry”. Americans are polite.
“Hi, what’s up”, shouted a young black man quickly running down the mountain one time. He did not care for my response.
“How are you doing” is the most common greeting. “Good, how are you” I always say back.
As I am hiking now for more than 5 weeks, I get to know other people walking up at a similar time. One of them is Eric, a young black guy with a blue breathing mask. From far away, I hear his heavy breathing and, in the beginning, I thought that he has severe breathing problems. However, he trains for marathons and other sports activities. His mask provides the same amount of oxygen as if he would be on 10, 000 feet. It just serves as a training tool.
One time, I met another guy with a breathing mask. A woolen hat covered his head. His mask was green and he wore a green shirt. Shortly after I passed him, another hiker stopped me.
“Did you see the guy with the breathing mask?” he asked me.
His voiced sounded severely concerned.
“He looked like a terrorist,” he continued, “with a bullet proof vest underneath his green shirt.”
Then there is Peter, the Apache Indian who is not really an Apache or maybe he is part Apache because his grandmother was full-blooded Indian. He looks like a Native American with his long, black hair, the dark skin and his muscular, sturdy body. He walks up the mountain at least twice a week and carries a huge American flag in his right hand, the pole not leaning on his shoulders. His strong arm holds the flag away from his body to allow the flag to wave in the wind. When he is on the top of the mountain, sometimes the red stripes and the 50 blue stars are penetrated by the morning light and dissolve the flag into pure light.
“You are a peacemaker”, I one time said to him as he told me his story about how he found the flag in a crevice on the mountain last year and how he honors his ancestors by carrying it up the mountain. His answer to my remark surprised me.
“Oh no, I am a gentle soul,” he said.
Only later did I learn, that the meaning of the word peacemaker is not always a “Friedensstifter ” The word Peacemaker is also used for a pistol.
Peter, the gentle soul, is not alone carrying up a flag. One time, I saw three men climbing up the mountain with three huge American flags.
“Why are you carrying up a flag,” I asked.
“It is for God and the country,” one of the three responded proudly and the other two nodded in agreement.
“What does that mean?” I continued.
“For freedom” one of them said.
“We welcome everybody” and, after a short pause, he continued, “however, the country is in a bad shape.”
Abruptly the third man ended the conversation.
“We do not have to explain!”
Just some meters farther up the mountain, they were greeted by a group of people cheering them on.
Sometimes, I walk in the afternoon. The afternoon is a time for family and visitors. People stop, rest and talk. One time I passed a group of somber, serious people standing beside a stone bench. The women were dressed in long single colored skirts with aprons and bonnets on their heads. The men were all bearded and wore black pants and black hats. They belonged either to the religious group of Amish people or Mennonites. I was tempted to ask them about their way of life but decided not to.
Squaw Peak is a special mountain for me, sacred, mysterious and powerful. Sometimes, I walk up twice a day and every time it is a different experience. But always I end the hike with a smile on my face and an inner bow of thankfulness for being here now.