News and Tribune

October 5, 2013

DODD: Desert life is bittersweet

Local columnist

— It was only his second day on the Arizona National Trail. The two gallons of water Steve Voelker had been carrying in his 50-pound camping pack was completely gone.

Although he had only been out of water for a little over an hour, this was the Arizona wilderness where one can dehydrate in a short amount of time. His last urine was already a rusty brown/red color. He told me when hiking such conditions, “Water is always an issue.”

In a stroke of good fortune, he had found a water cache which also included two ginger ales and a Shasta lemon-lime drink. The can had a small hole and he began to drink from that hole for an immediate thirst quencher. He then popped the top and saw them running out.

“Hell, I had been drinking ants!”

Voelker was making a sojourn that few people will ever undertake. He was hiking alone in what can certainly prove to be some very unforgiving terrain. Most would believe it to be even more of a calculated risk for a man who is 68 years old.


“Just had a big scare, deputy sheriff outside my tent named Bundy. My In Reach that had not been tracking properly emergency beacon had gone off. He hiked 3 miles to find me.”

To train he had walked 10 miles per day on a treadmill and hiked in local park trails carrying his pack; 50 pounds of food and supplies that did not include the two gallons of water. One day on the Arizona trail, he hiked 23 miles.

Kim, Cameron and I have hiked some of the national park trails — always on a day trip. Carrying snacks and adequate water are not luxuries. Our hikes had always been for a few hours.

Voelker often spent days alone and slept by himself in a lean-to set up overnight in a land full of bears and mountain lions among the unwelcoming nocturnal wildlife. He spent one evening watching bats catch insects at eye-level responding to the night light attached to his head. On another evening, he was sure he heard a bear’s grunting close to his camp. After some anxious moments, the growls and whatever was making them disappeared into the night.


“being stupid I sat and broke my glasses, will look for readers; have to get mine fixed in Flag.”

Steve recalls it was often a long time between any forms of bathing. As he describes when he happened upon someone at a camping area or in a small community, he could be quite a sight. Such was the case when he emerged one day upon some ladies enjoying a picnic, looking a bit haggard and smelling a bit “randy.” He simply walked up to and inquired in the most polite tone, “Hey ladies, can you drive me to the visitor’s center?”

One can imagine just such a scene in a cheap slasher movie.

He had slept overnight on a “ranch” house off the trail. As he learned in Vietnam, when sleeping around people you don’t know it’s a good idea to keep your wallet in your pillowcase beneath your head all night. When he arrived at the Grand Canyon lodge the next morning to check in, he discovered he had no wallet. Contrary to what the commercials lead one to believe, Fed Ex and UPS don’t deliver totally worldwide. His missing wallet arrived the old fashioned way — by overnight mule express.


“Rained last night, raining this morning. Set up my hooch, so I stayed dry, hopes this is just a morning, shower need water supply. Cyclist told me I would find a cow trough.”

When water is necessary for survival, one will drink what one normally wouldn’t. Steve found water sometimes in rain puddles, livestock troughs or in muddy footprints on a trail. Among ways to make such drinking water safe are to use iodine pills or use a steri-pen, which utilizes infrared light. As a precaution, he used both on any water that was suspect.

After one particularly long and grueling day, he had some welcome company.

“A truck came by with two Navajos who had some beer. In my 10 years of being sober, I came as close to drinking beer as I have at any time since.”


“Slept well; all thunder, no rain. Trail very rutted by horses and cows, some holes six inches deep, slow going. Saw an antelope; saw three more. Trail very confusing at Horse Lake, kept taking me in a circle. Hole in top of shoe ...”

Steve had originally intended this to be a journey of a little over 800 miles. He had to call it off somewhere between 260 and 270 miles in 21 days due to severe pains in his thighs. He is still dealing with the residual pain. He has plans of going back and hiking other parts of the trail in the future.

His solitude in the evenings was spent with David Halberstam’s book “The Fifties,” which he enjoyed on his Kindle and highly recommends.

“That was good for 200 miles.”

It was also am spiritual journey.

“When I walked, I prayed. I did my third step.”

Steve is a recovering alcoholic who still regularly attends AA meetings. He attended them when he could find one just off the trail.

 He told me that after his Vietnam days — during which he was highly decorated and twice seriously wounded — he had kind of made a promise to never travel and sleep in such conditions again. Steve learned many years after the war that he suffers from post traumatic stress disorder. It was all therapeutic for him on the trail.

On Sept. 7 at the end of his journal notes, he wrote down some random thoughts and reflections calling them “Things I have learned.”

“I love Carolyn and live my life differently when she is around. I have physical limits. Weather is unpredictable. I am okay with just being by myself but I enjoy talking to people. My God is always with me.”

His body is still recovering from the wear and tear and routine bodily functions are slowly returning to a normal schedule. There is only one lingering psychological effect.

“I didn’t want to come back. That’s been the problem.”

It is determined that each of us shall die. It’s up to each one of each of us to determine for ourselves how we shall live. Steve Voelker completely left civilization to enjoy the beauty of the wild and challenge all the elements of Mother Nature. He is one of the few that actually will ever know whether the romanticism outweighs the harsh reality.

He went the way of John Muir and Henry David Thoreau. I wonder what books they had on their Kindles.

— Lindon Dodd is a freelance writer who can be reached at