By Kathy “OBAL Unbranded” Vaughan
Her eyes stared blankly at me from where she sat atop the shelf just inside the closed Gila River National Visitor’s Center. I could tell right away that she was soft, plush, and sweet. She was waiting to be nurtured, held close and loved. Her coat was mottled gray, with a tuft of wiry looking hair between her pointy ears. Her snout had a beige tip, and her short legs had small, cloven hoofs at their ends. She was adorable and I couldn’t stop thinking about her as I hiked away from the building. It would be 800 miles of hiking, at an intensity and level of excitement that I never could have predicted, before I would see this face again; this stout, yet soft-seeming, stuffed javelina.
When I was a child, I had asthma and it would often be worse at night. I discovered that if I propped my big stuffed turtle underneath my head, it would silence the rattling in my chest, what sounded to me like little voices chit chatting away and making it hard for me to breathe. My sister and I would play stuffed animal games before falling asleep each night, and my brother would call out from his bedroom, trying to join in the games. I outgrew the asthma and the stuffed animal games, but the comfort and playfulness that these soft toy animals induce has stuck with me. During a long thru-hike, while spending chunks of time away from my pets, my soul longs for critters to nurture. I find myself talking to the squirrels, the kangaroo rats, the horned toads, jack rabbits and even a Sonoran Desert tortoise on occasion.
It is not unusual for thru-hikers to carry a trail buddy with them. I sew small trail totem dolls from recycled fabrics, stuffing them with wool and adorning them with outfits and style. I have gifted trail friends and family with these dolls, although I do not carry one myself. Ras gave me a small tortoise named Cruiser just before our last hike, and Cruiser joined me on the Grand Enchantment Trail in Arizona and New Mexico.
I loved having Cruiser with me. I stuffed him inside my pack so I wouldn’t lose him and I tried hard to keep him clean. He was bright green with tan markings and had huge eyes. Sometimes, I would take him out of my pack to take pictures of him in especially scenic settings. Then I would zip him right back into the Gossamer Gear cuben fiber pouch where he lived, with my pinon sap, salve, journal and other special trail items.
One morning, Ras and I spent quite a bit of time in camp drying out our gear in the sunshine. We had been caught in a snow storm in the Manzano Mountains the day before. As we descended to this drive-up camp, lonely this time of year, the snow turned to rain. We holed up inside an outhouse to dry off, until we discovered a black widow in her web high in the corner of the small space. Ras braved the weather to set up our tent and we slept soundly in the dry space. Two rangers drove into the camp the next morning to fill up their water tank, and Ras struck up a conversation with them. I basked in the warm sunshine and set Cruiser in a grassy spot to take a couple of pictures. I became distracted by trying to eavesdrop in the conversation, and soon forgot all about little Cruiser.
Sometime later that morning, hiking swiftly downhill, I thought of him, sitting in the grass. I cried out without even realizing it, “Oh Cruiser!” My insides sank and my heart felt immediately heavy as the vague wondering of whether I might of accidentally left him there, turned into the strong reality that I most certainly had.
Ras heard my cry and knew what had happened. He felt so bad for me and patiently allowed me to mourn the loss of a little stuffed animal, a trail friend. The small tortoise had been with me for nearly 1,000 miles. I got a little lift each time I saw those goofy big eyes. I could not believe the heart ache I felt upon leaving this guy behind, or the sadness I would feel as I thought of him alone there in the grass, next to the fence in the empty campground.
Sopping wet from a deluge and the wrath of a desert thunder storm, Ras and I sat outside the now open Gila National Visitor’s Center. We were on the return Yo of our Yo-Yo attempt on the Grand Enchantment Trail. We pulled off our dripping capes and found a place to hang them to dry. I stripped off a couple of other layers and made myself presentable. It was time to go inside and warm up, check out the displays, and maybe see if a shy, plush, stuffed javelina still lived here.
I am drawn to hiking in the desert, due in part to having spent my life in the Pacific Northwest. The desert is mysterious and special, hosting wildlife, plants and terrain that is all new to me. I have thru-hiked the 800 mile Arizona National Scenic Trail, Yo-Yo’ed this same trail, and hiked 1,300 miles of the Grand Enchantment Trail in a Yo-Yo attempt, during the spring of 2017. During these hikes, I have been able to both see and hear the little wild pigs, javelinas. The first experience I had with them, I heard the snorting and grunting before I saw the dark and wiry creatures. There were a couple of them together rooting around in the dry, cattle impacted zone around the Gila River. The second sighting was during my Yo-Yo hike of the AZT with Ras in the fall of 2016. Ras and I were joined for 100 miles by my friend Lisa Eversgerd. We had hiked off the trail to investigate the possibility of filtering water from the Gila, and as we approached the banks of the river, a limping javelina came towards Lisa and I. I screeched as I lept towards her, not being familiar with the animal, and hearing stories of their vicious tendencies. This guy had no desires to harm us and really just seemed a little down on its' luck, limping and all. I felt bad for it as we watched it hobble away.
My third sighting of javelinas was during my GET hike, wandering along the scenic rocks of the Slickrock Wonderland in New Mexico. Ras and I both felt the presence of other beings, and soon saw a small pack of javelinas. One stood out from the others and I assumed it was a mother. This one was not dark and wiry looking, but instead was mottled gray.
Ras and I wandered the inside of the Visitor’s Center, looking at the displays of the early Mogollon peoples that had lived along the Gila. We spent an hour inside, at least, and finally came to the shelves where the stuffed animals were. Other animals that represented images and memories we had shared along the trail were there, but the longing eyes and soft fur of the javelina I had seen 800 miles and a myriad of experiences previously, left me but no choice. I named her Magdalena May (after my favorite trail town, Magdalena, NM and it being the month of May) and found a place for her at the top of my already plump pack, having just picked up a resupply in the small community of Gila Hot Springs. She would be my pillow and my companion, not to mention a way to fill the hole in my heart that had been made when I left Cruiser behind.
It was ridiculous. She’s big, not a small, reasonable sized trail totem. But Ras insisted, and I’m glad he did. Yes, I’m 51 and entirely too old to play with stuffed animals. A thru-hike is life changing, intense, beautiful, impactful and teaches us to tap into our Inner Hominid. I thrive on the trails, whether it is my daily run or cross-country ski trip, or I am out on a multi-month adventure hike. It’s my essence, my core, my call. While out there, I am content. An inanimate object that can absorb my tears of joy or pain; ride along in my pack just for the pleasure of it; prop my head up at night; cause me to laugh or talk silly or share a goofy moment with Ras; and helps instill in me the belief that it serves as my guidance and protection on the trail, she’s worth more than her weight.