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Bronco Trail

Updated: May 13

The road to Bronco Trail is mostly paved except for the last couple of miles, when I dodge occasional potholes on packed gravel. My phone is already throwing an SOS-only signal, so I put it in airplane mode and hope I don’t get a flat. When I spot the Tonto National Forest sign at the trailhead, I turn in. The parking lot is desolate, the pit toilet doors tattered in gunshot wounds and peeling paint. There’s an unoccupied row of horse holding pens near the entrance, and a massive gravel lot for turning around trailers. In the distance, but not too far: the intermittent sound of semi-automatics.

I start the hike questioning whether I should have brought long-sleeves, but the sun heats up fast and so does my pulse. I love days like this where I’m ascending toward blue sky, my breath forced to the bottom of my diaphragm, all before 8 am. Except from the distant gunfire from the range, it's peaceful: a single bird sits atop a swaying branch, singing its song.

The initial hike up from the parking lot gives a sweeping overview of the land: distant peaks in all directions, layers of mountains and rocks. All around, the dry brush reveals pops of poppyseed orange, spring wildflowers drawing their last breaths before summer. There's chuparasoa between scatterings of stone and skeletal cacti, slumped against its own sinewy veins. There's no trash except for a green mylar balloon, star-shaped and deflated, its ribbon caught in the weeds. I always wonder where balloons go when you let them fly, and how long they ride the wind.


The first .75 mile is kind and generous, with a gentle grade and wide open space. Between parades of fire ants and trapdoor spider tunnels, lizards scamper across trail so fast they take minor flight. I listen for rattlesnakes acutely so I don't mistake them for rustling brush. With no cell signal and no one around, I steady my eyes to the ground.

By 8:30 am, the vista changes to a beautiful swath of lush green field: something you don't see in the foothills. Grasses bow into the trail on either side as crickets spring from one blade to the next. Every so often, seeds latch onto my socks.

Just past the fields, the trail leads along the mountainside; to my left is a gorgeous valley of sunlit seams: draping, hilly terrain. I opted for this hike over hundreds of shaded forested paths because I wanted wide open spaces, somewhere wide to gaze at. Every minute feels indulgent, until more than 2 miles in when the path descends. Much of the trail now feels like walking through a dry creekbed, until it delivers me by a cloudy pond. I approach cautiously, making a few noises here and there to ward off any number of the wild and starving animals I imagine lurking for perfect little prey like me, silent and defenseless.

Past the pond, the trail rises immediately up to a saddle where you can see both sides. It's pretty, but the gunshots are sounding again and the views were better on the hillside. By this point (2.7 miles in) I'm feeling a little too hot and uneasy by the somewhat overgrown trail, lack of proper shade, and petrified horse droppings that suggests no one has been here for a long while.

At nearly 3.5 miles, I encounter a cattle fence, walk through and suddenly hear a series of loud, sobering snaps and crunches in an overgrown area I can't see, followed by a cacophony of distressed birds, flying in packs away from the sound. My heartrate spikes. I'm so close to the end, which according to the map isn't at any particular summit or destination, so I immediately turn around and walk briskly back to the hillside to regain my calm.

Two white butterflies flit on the ridge toward the first shadow of the day as I practice my mini meditation. Down the road, bang bang bang, another round of gunfire. Next to me, pop pop pop, a jumping red-winged insect in the weeds. All around me, little gnats hover around my sweaty skin. Normally I shoo them away, but for three minutes I let them swarm. There's bees and flies and birds and three hundred feet below, a dune-buggy kicking up the gravel forest road. I wait to see if it will turn into the trailhead, but just like the other two vehicles I'd seen that day, it barrels on past.

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