Trekking through a burn scar on the Lost Dutchman Trail in Arizona reveals unsuspecting beauty
The further we hiked, the deeper my heart sunk with the realization that we may actually be *camping* in this vast, desolate, dead burn scar.
I was deflated.
The first mile and a half of the hike was through some absolutely stunning desert landscape with a surprising amount of fresh, green foliage. The saguaros stood proud above us, with crowns easily 15 feet above my own ballcap-clad head. There were vibrant blooming colors everywhere, and we even passed a small spring with crystal clear water that pooled against silver boulders.
Cresting a hill teeming with desert plants, we caught our first look at the burn scar. Unmistakable. A depressing swath of saguaro skeletons as far as the eye could see. Black smudges where there were once bushes and ocotillo. Brown, grey and black earth. A monochromatic landscape in shades of dead.
We pushed on, my thoughts urging me to believe that once we crested that next hill, then we’d be back in the desert abundance where we started and fell in love with the landscape.
But it was not to be. The next crest, and the next one, and the next one, all led to more burned valleys, more destruction — and my heart fell clear to my abdomen.
I didn’t hike all the way out here to camp in a burned-up desert. I wanted the liveliness of plants you don’t see anywhere else and the unique birdsong of their inhabitants.
I didn’t want to camp next to a stump of charcoaled cactus. I wanted to sleep in a tent guarded by 12-foot saguaros and their 2-inch long spines.
The dust kicked up as we trudged forward. The hues never shifted back to green.
We found a spot with only half-burned bushes that would provide some shade to our tent and privacy from the trail and other hikers. We set up our home for the next few days and wandered to find the springs the maps promised us. Everywhere we went, blackened land met us.
It was easy to imagine where the old trees had been, where the cacti had grown big and strong. And it was easy to fall back into a depression about the state of a warming, dying world and how all the beauty was being sucked out of it, one wildfire, one degree Fahrenheit at a time.
We went to sleep under the half-charred branches and resolved to enjoy the next day and our explorations as much as possible, regardless of the previous year’s burn.
And to my surprise, something shifted that next day.
As we were day-tripping a few miles up the trail to find another set of springs, we started to notice little shoots of nearly-neon green peeking out from the burned base of a bush.
It had only been a year, and a dry year at that, but somehow, this little piece of life found a way to try and start again.
And then it happened again, another blackened smudge interrupted with a sprig of fresh, verdant life.
Then we started to see signs of new beginnings in more and more places. We found a flowing spring and around its perimeter were forests of reeds. The cottonwoods shading it hadn’t all burned either. Some were still fighting the good fight and finding ways to survive in the unforgiving desert.
Intellectually, I know fires are part of life — that they are necessary and can clear the way for new growth to occur. They can provide the soil with essential nutrients, and they can allow stubborn seed pods to burst open with their intense heat.
But seeing such a massive example of fiery destruction brought familiar, sad feelings. I was only 11 years old when the Cerro Grande Fire raged through the mountains and then the town that we were living in at the time. We had been evacuated, school was canceled for weeks and we watched the news from our hotel rooms trying to see if our house had been caught in the path of flames.
We were some of the lucky ones in that when we returned home, we had a home to return to that was much the same, save for a layer of ash and a lingering smell of smoke.
The Jemez Mountains still haven’t recovered from that burn, but seeing these new beginnings up close in the desert in Arizona gave me a new sprinkling of hope and understanding. As our second and third days on the Lost Dutchman Trail marched on, we were able to see the beauty in rebirth on a ground level. The scar itself is a living canvas of new textures and colors that can only be achieved by the utter destruction of everything within it.
My backcountry joy had returned by the time we reached our campsite at the end of Day Two and instead of seeing death all around us, I started to see a blank slate, coming to life in its own, tenacious way. I still heard the birdsong I was aching for once I quieted my mind enough to let the notes in. I still saw vibrant colors but more in the sky than on the earth.
My lens had shifted, and I could clearly see the beauty in a wiped out piece of the world. By the time the last steps of the trip were underfoot, I’d grown a new appreciation for a landscape that previously stole the breath from my lungs.
I still abide by every piece of fire restrictions and engage in overly-safe fire practices. I still get nervous when I hear about prescribed burns even though I have many firefighters in my life and understand their importance in keeping our forests healthy and safe.
The Jemez Mountains are starting to turn green again. Every visit I notice a bit more foliage and color than the one before. Landscapes will recover, but they’ll never look exactly the same. While certainly not in our lifetimes, the world is a miraculous healer. She can birth a new life from unimaginable destruction.
Wildfires are caused by humans 90% of the time, and that’s a serious problem. But finding the beauty in the scar is more than possible. I’d wager that doing so can change your life.
HOLLY PRIESTLEY is a writer, podcaster, creator and adventurer who lives in her 1997 Ford van with her dog and travels the western United States.