The sliver of shade cast by the outhouse was just large enough for me to stretch out, my back comfortably supported by the wall. My filthy legs protruded into the sun, but I was so exhausted that I didn’t care. I stared off at the remarkable sandstone swales on the opposite side of the canyon, alternating between thoughts of how blatantly clear it was that I had reached the remote Utah border and what would be the best way to get into the watermelon sitting in front of me. My two options seemed to be the 1-inch blade on my tiny multi-tool or smashing the fruit open with a rock. After perhaps ten minutes of exceedingly slow thought, I settled on the knife and started carefully carving away.
I had spent the previous seven days pedaling the length of the Arizona Trail from the Mexican border at the foot of the Huachuca Mountains, through the yellow grass of the Canelo Hills, over Mount Lemmon, across a remote corner of the Senoran Desert filled with the sharpest plants imaginable, up onto the Colorado Plateau, and right up to the Utah state line. My mind was able to push my body harder than it ever had before, and I was fortunate enough to reach the northern terminus of the trail just hours before a group of ultra runner friends wrapped up a run in one of the local slot canyons. One of those friends, Caroline, was kind enough to leave her car unlocked so I could feast on whatever food was inside, should I finish before they left. I was quite excited to find a watermelon inside. It was rather warm and a bit past its prime, but few other things would have made me happier at that moment.
My mind drifted as I cut the last part of the melon up into crude triangular shapes. After I had emerged from the shrubby juniper and cedar woodlands at the top of the final hill of the trail, the characteristic red and tan sandstone landscape of southern Utah suddenly came into view. My focus suddenly shifted to the array of colors drifting past me as I slipped through a spectacularly flower-filled meadow; pink, lavender, yellow, bright orange, and white. All this suddenly overwhelmed me as I effortlessly carved through the switchbacks of the final descent. I recalled all this over and over again as I sat in that shade. I still do quite often, nearly two years later.
The first bite, which I saved until I finished cutting up the entire watermelon, tasted better than anything I had eaten all week. Just as I swallowed it, a rustling in the sage caught my attention. I turned to see a scruffy man with long, tanned legs and turquoise running shorts striding through the scratchy brush not more than ten meters away. He wore an old external frame pack with a blue tarp strapped to one side. His shirt was slung over the waist belt, and it looked like he hadn’t worn it in quite some time judging by his leathery tan chest.
“Hey, do you have a bit of water you could spare?” he tentatively asked.
“Yeah, there’s a couple gallons in a car over there that you can have if you want,” I replied, happy to help out someone who obviously had been on the move for quite some time in very arid country.
“Oh, maybe I could fill two bottles!” he said. He pulled out two small, crumpled plastic bottles from the side pouch of his pack.
“Fill up whatever you have!” I insisted.
I told him I’d be right back and slowly and awkwardly stood up and limped over to Caroline’s car and took out a water jug. My feet ached as I limped back. My soles were blistered, pads sore, and one Achilles tendon in terrible shape. The tanned stranger had settled down in the sun next to where I had been sitting and leaned back on the outhouse wall, eyes closed. He perked up when I got back, and I helped him fill five little bottles.
Sitting back down required a surprising amount of effort, but managed to get comfortable again and took another bite of watermelon.
“Have some, please,” I said, motioning for him to take a piece.
“Nah, that’s alright. I’ve got some beans I’ll eat in a bit here.” He guzzled down one full bottle and immediately unscrewed the cap from another and took a few more sips.
“I’m Kurt,” I finally said after a long silence. Clearly we were both rather weary.
“Pat. Nice to meet you. Thanks for this water, by the way!” he replied cheerfully.
“Where’ve you been hiking?” I inquired.
“Well, I was trying to follow a jeep trail over that way, but apparently my map is old, and the trail doesn’t seem to exist anymore. So I’ve ended up walking maybe ten miles cross country this afternoon.” His bloody shins supported his story. Then I noticed he was wearing sandals and couldn't help but wonder how he managed to hike off trail without shoes.
I convinced him to eat some watermelon, and we began exchanging stories. He had walked across northern Arizona and southern Utah. And Nevada. And eastern California. He had no route planned, no destination in mind, and no time constraints dictating his travels. I, on the other hand, had just ridden a very specific route as fast as I possibly could, hoping to reach the spot I currently sat on the seventh day. Yet we both were traveling on our own across a large, relatively wild swaths of country.
Pat had left his home and job in San Francisco earlier in the year looking for a change. He had been caring for a sickly man for the previous five years, but he knew it was time to move on. He found a replacement caretaker for his elderly friend, put his own belongings in storage, and walked out of the city. Walked.
The first snows of winter fell across the Sierra just as he reached the eastern side of the range. Over the winter, he explored the western end of the Grand Canyon and the deserts to the north. He had been traveling using county maps that lacked considerable detail. Beans and tortillas had been his primary meals for months, and it sounded like he just stocked up whenever he found his way into a town. Interestingly, he never used the words hiked, or trekked, or backpacked. Just walked.
His uninhibited freedom and having no specific destination fascinated me. My focus and desire to move as fast as possible entertained him. We each seemed to sit back and ponder each others’ experiences for more than a few minutes. Under any other circumstances, the silence would have felt particularly awkward, but for some reason, I felt only calmness in the still afternoon heat.
We conversed at length, finishing the watermelon and consuming all the water I had carried over. Pat pulled a plastic container of beans out of his pack and spread them into a couple tortillas. He told me of a place in the western Grand Canyon where the local Indians would let me ride my bike all the way down to the river. I told him of beautiful routes he could take from eastern Utah into the Colorado Rockies, an area that he seemed drawn toward.
After a couple hours, Pat started stuffing things back into his pack and said he should be going.
“Where are you heading for tonight?” I asked.
“I’m not sure. Maybe I’ll take the canyon your friends are in. I’ve heard that it’s pretty back there.” He gazed eastwardly for a moment and then picked up the last of his water bottles and slid them into side pockets of his pack.
Just then, Caroline and a few of her companions returned, and not long after introducing her to Pat and Pat to her, Pat slung his pack over his lanky torso, said farewell, and was off. I wished him the best. Caroline did the same, seeming a bit perplexed by the whole situation. But if she had not returned and met Pat before he departed, I'm not sure I would entirely believe that I had met him, either.
Ever since that day, my mind often wanders to Pat and his adventures. I have no idea where he ended up, what adventures he had along the way, or if he’s returned to any semblance of a “normal” lifestyle. But I’d love to know. The paths our lives unexpectedly cross and the precise timing required for such encounters to occur take me aback. Moreover, the effect such chance meetings can have on one’s life make such an affair quite extraordinary.