Walking Through the Night (The Entire Night) With Two 13-year Old Boys—They Are My New Heroes!! Our Boys Can Do So Much More Than We Give Them Credit For
We knew we were headed in the right direction. We had a map and a compass. We knew there was no chance to get too lost. We knew this area so well. But we kept doubting ourselves.
It was nearly midnight as we ascended up the hill to reach the plateau. We had already been walking for five hours—Wexler (my son), JP (his friend), and me. At this point, it was unclear if we were on the correct path. We had walked this stretch several times before. But it felt different. The final water crossing, the one we expected would be up to our waist, was much tamer. Although the water was running at a fierce pace, we were able to scurry across the boulders in the flooded creek on all fours, without really walking through the rapid current. This was so much different from last year. Last year, we literally raised our bags above our heads as we waded through the waist deep water, careful not to step on any rocks or trip on any submerged boulders which would cause us to fall into the freezing water.
Wexler insisted this was not that crossing. “That crossing is ahead,” he insisted. We also wondered if we were even on the right trail. The moonless night made it even more mysterious, challenging all of our senses. It was impossible to consider any landmarks at this point. We chatted together as JP walked slightly behind, careful not to share our misgivings with this brave 13 year old who had agreed to walk with us through the night.
It was clear that JP was getting tired. Wexler attempted to keep JP amused. “What are you doing this summer?” “Who was in our preschool class?” The questions just kept coming. Wexler is good at that. Asking questions. Sometimes it drives me crazy. But it was clear to me that he was keeping his friend awake, alert, and entertained.
We were all getting tired. And we knew that we still had at least 7 more hours to walk. The difference for JP was that he had never done anything like this before.
When Wexler and I decided to make the trip again this year, he asked if he could bring his friend JP. Disclaimer—I am not particularly good with children. But I wanted to challenge myself. And I wanted to give Wexler the opportunity to share a unique experience with his friend.
I talked with JP and his grandparents (who are his parental figures) about the trip. I explained that walking through the night is hard. I told them “it is going to be extremely dark. This is not only disorienting, but it can be difficult to navigate. We will be crossing streams, some waist high.” I explained that the hike begins at 6 pm and finishes around 7am— walking over 20 miles (a 2,700 ft climb) up Bear canyon, looping around the East Fork, and down Sabino canyon. I continued to remind them—IN THE DARK! I warned that at different points during the night, exhaustion sets in. Wexler kept chiming in, “she is exaggerating. It is fun.”
The year before, Wexler and I walked through the night. He did not remember the exhaustion. He just remembered when we stopped to roast marshmallows along the way and made hot chocolate to keep warm. I remembered how tired we got. But I also remember Wexler’s sweet spirit. He never complained. He just kept going.
I continued to stress all of the obstacles to JP. It will be hard. It will be dark. You will get tired. You will need to dig deep to find resources to go on. I explained to JP and his grandparents that it is a big responsibility to take a 13 year old with very little hiking experience on a walk for over 20 miles in the black, dark desert night. JP wanted to go. His grandparents were supportive and he even said later, with wry humor, that he thought they were happy to get him out of the house. JP even admits that his favorite place is in his bed, that he does not like team sports and that he is not generally self motivated to do much physical activity (although he does study martial arts).
I was shocked when JP arrived at the National Park entrance at the designated time. He was really coming with us! We told him to bring food, water, and a blanket in case we needed to stop to rest. JP’s grandma dropped him off so quickly that I did not have time to investigate his bag before she left. It was clear without even feeling the weight of the bag that it was heavy—just by the way he was carrying it. Additionally, the straps were clearly too loose as the bag was hanging way down on his buttocks. Wexler and I helped adjust the straps which is when I noticed how heavy the bag actually was. “What is in there?” I asked JP? He looked at me with that blank look that many teenagers have. “I dunno,” he said. It turned out that this was JP’s dad’s bag. The dad is a firefighter/paramedic. This was not a lightweight backpack—it was made of a heavy canvas material. There were several full rolls of duct tape attached to a loop on the bag. Inside he had a large bladder of water and an additional giant water bottle. I had forgotten to mention to the grandparents that we had a water filter and there was plenty of water flowing. He was also carrying other random items left behind from his father’s last adventure.
But JP insisted that it was OK. He felt good about the bag and did not want to shed anything. He was ready to walk. OK. I needed to trust the kid.
I asked JP if he was nervous, He said “no.” It seemed like a genuine “no.” That made me nervous. Typically, it would seem to me, if someone was going to walk for 13 hours in the dark of the night in the desert, there would be at least a small amount of fear. Either, he was not in touch with his emotions or he had no clue what he had gotten himself into. I was hoping for the former.
We took some photos. I made a quick debrief about the route, safety tips, and how we were in this together.
And then, around 6:15 pm, we head out.
The first 2 miles are along a paved road. We walked at a fast clip, talking fast, excited for the adventure. It was a lot warmer than any of us expected which meant that we were slowly shedding our clothes—wondering if all of the extra layers we were carrying were even necessary. After a bit, we arrived at the trailhead, a sandy, narrow path, closed in by dense desert trees which quickly opens up with a boulder faced rocky wall on the left, and the river on the right. In the summer, the wash is bone dry until the late summer monsoons arrive. But now, in mid-March, the snow melt was flooding the wash, a steady stream of water. After about a mile, the river crossings began. The Seven Falls Trail crosses the river about ten times. In the past, there were primitive river crossings, but about 25 years ago a large storm came through and broke them all apart.
Wexler and I were a bit nervous because the ranger voluntarily told us earlier in the day that the streams were quite deep. But we also knew that the rains this year were much less than last year. We did our due diligence and assessed the situation based on our experience from last year—considering last year’s rainfall with that of this year. Worst case scenario, we would turn back and find another route or abandon the expedition. Safety first.
It turned out that the water level was much lower than the year before, making the crossings easier and the path much more apparent.
Once we approached the streams, we investigated the best route through the water—determining where it was most shallow in certain areas and where we could boulder hop in other areas. Then we changed from our hiking shoes into our sandals. Wexler had nice, supportive sandals but JP and I had only flip flops. I brought a little speaker and we listened to a playlist that Wexler made for me—singing “American Pie,” “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” “Space Oddity,” and his new favorite, “Riptide.” Don McLean, John Denver, and David Bowie—supported by the Beatles, Grateful Dead, Tom Petty, Journey, and many more. (Contact me for the full playlist.)
It was difficult to navigate through the soft sandy bottom combined with the large rocks and boulders in the river. Boulder hopping was also tricky in flip flops. In the daylight it would be a challenge. But in the night, with only a flashlight and no moonlight, it proved to be difficult. Soon, JP began to complain that his jeans kept falling down. But he continued along, never lagging behind.
Despite the obstacles, our spirits were up as we slowly made our way zigzagging across the river and singing to the tunes blasting through the speaker.
It was a relief to reach the path where it away from the river, making switchbacks up the side of the mountain—because for the moment, the river crossings were over. We made our way up and suddenly we were at the trail leading up into Bear Canyon. Below were the majestic Seven Falls, but we could not see a thing. We tried to shine our flashlights toward the falls. Nothing. Just darkness. On a moonlit night, we would be able to see the falls. Not this night. This night was about navigating in real darkness. This required different senses. Sound and touch were magnified.
The final river crossing could be tricky. Possibly too deep or too fast. Not many people ever walk this far into the canyon so we did not have any first hand observations. It was a year since we were last there. We also knew there was a risk that the course of the stream changed in that time. The last time we crossed, it was waist deep. After he made an assessment, Wexler went first. He acted with such confidence and certainty. He hopped across the boulders and made it across without even getting his feet wet. JP and I followed.
Once the three of us were across, Wexler insisted we had one more crossing. He did not believe this had been the “big” one. Careful not to worry JP, we spoke in hushed whispers.
Last year, when we walked this same route through the night, we felt very confident in our knowledge of the trail. We spent several days scouting out the route so we both knew what we were up against. But this time, it had been a year. We were rusty and the water level was confusing us.
We took a rest, purified some water, ate a little bit, and then continued up the steepest part of the route. After about 4 hours of walking, JP was visibly tired. I was imagining what might be going through his mind. “What have I gotten myself into?” “I still have 9 more hours left, how could I possibly do it.” “I am so tired.” “Will I be able to do this?”
But he persisted. He never fell behind. Wexler persisted with the questions. At one point JP put in his earbuds. He needed to suffer through this one alone for a bit.
Wexler and I kept telling JP about “the clearing.” At the clearing we would make marshmallows and hot chocolate. At the clearing we would rest. At the clearing we could even take a short nap. And most important, at the clearing, we would be halfway AND it would mostly be downhill for the rest of the way.
JP kept asking, “are we almost at the clearing?” Then he joked every couple minutes, “I think this is the clearing.”
All of a sudden, to all of our surprise, we were at the clearing—the place where we would turn off to make our way down the back side of the mountain on the East Fork, cutting over to Sabino Canyon.
We had made it halfway in only 5 ½ hours. We made it to the top. I felt such relief. JP made it. He did it. I knew there had been a risk that he would fall behind, walking at a painfully slow pace. Or that he would simply be unable to proceed. This did not happen. With the help and encouragement of Wexler, and JP’s own determination, he made it to this halfway point.
At this point, his energy and even facial expression shifted. It was palpable. I could sense that he knew that if he could make it this far, he could finish it out. He had some sort of a reference for what he had done and how much more he had. He could see the end—metaphorically.
The boys gathered firewood for the stove and then they slept. During the last five hours of walking, the temperature dropped 30 degrees. It was cold. Really cold. Especially once we were stopped. But the cold did not stop them from sleeping on the cold ground. They were tired. I let them sleep about 15 minutes and made a fire in my wood burning stove. Then we roasted marshmallows and made hot chocolate.
After a rest and refueling, we were ready to proceed down the hill. The next hours blurred into one another as we proceeded down the backside of the mountain. After some hours, we found ourselves at the turn off to Sabino Canyon. While we were walking, we were warm, but the minute we stopped, the bodies cooled down. We wanted to stop to rest but we knew the consequence. So we rested for only a short while and continued the way through Sabino Canyon—a combination of descent and ascent. Several hours later, we found ourselves at the road. But we were not finished.
The road is 4.5 miles through Sabino Canyon to our finish—the Sabino Canyon Visitor’s Center. Many years ago, the road was open to cars. No longer. Now it is primarily pedestrian with a tram that goes up each hour between 9am-5pm each day. And restricted bicycle use. But at 4am, there were no visitors of any sort. Just us. We knew that JP’s grandma was not coming to pick him up until 7am. And we were only about an hour and a half walk to the visitor center. So we had about 1 ½ extra hours.
I let the kids take a nap. JP pulled out his blanket and laid down. Wexler pulled out his sleeping bag and went over to sleep right next to JP. He put his head with an inch of JP’s. One of the cutest things I have ever seen. They slept. I made a fire in the stove for hot water. It was freezing outside. When they woke up, we slowly made our way down the canyon.
The last 4.5 miles were slow and cold. Especially on the feet. In Sabino Canyon there are bridges for the river crossings. But during the wet season they overflow. There are about 8-10 bridges. Crossing them is not a big deal. What is a big deal is that the water is freezing.
At about 6:30 am, we approached the Visitor’s Center.
They did it! I did it! We did it. The kids walked through the night. With grace. They were awesome. It was hard. We had to cross waterways. JP’s pants kept falling down. It was a very dark night. There was a lot of climbing. But they did it. What a fantastic accomplishment. Kids can do so much more than we often give them credit for. Let’s raise the bar!
What was so exciting was not just that two thirteen year olds walked through the night. It was also the leadership that Wexler displayed knowing that in some way he was responsible for his friend. What a gift—that JP trusted Wexler to guide him and that Wexler cared about his friend so much that he wanted to share this experience with him.
Now, two weeks later, I am reminded that one of the reasons that I make journeys like this one and enjoy sharing these types of experiences with Wexler is because it trains the body and the mind and provides a sense of accomplishment.
The time out there tests you. And it teaches how strong we really are. We are so much stronger than we can possibly imagine.
It is upon retrospection that I realize what I have done. What the kids accomplished. In the moment it feels somewhat exhausting and mundane. But in retrospect it is a grandiose achievement.