ALMOST ALL OF us have sacred places.

We visit and re-visit them throughout our lives because they offer a touchstone of sorts for who we are, where we’ve been and where we’re going.

Be it a bend in a river, stretch of beach along a seashore or, in my case, the top of a mountain, there is some special meaning attached that can never be erased.

For me, one of those places is Piestewa Peak (formerly known as Squaw Peak) — a craggy, cactus-strewn mountain that rises 2,608 feet above central Phoenix.

I’ve probably climbed that mountain two or three dozen times since I was a wee boy growing up in the Valley of the Sun.

During those younger years, one of my three dads (Steve Heilman) bribed my brother and me with promises of Chips Ahoy cookies if we reached it all the way to the top.

With visions of chocolate chips dancing in my head, we’d take down those 1.2 miles of trail (1,190-foot elevation gain) chunk by chunk as Steve followed carefully behind.

The most difficult part was the dramatic closing ascent consisting of countless sharp rock steps, some of which were nearly as tall as 7-year-old me.

I’d use my arms and legs to climb those final feet step by step, not stopping until I reached the tallest of the two peaks at the top (or as I called it in those days, the “tippy top.”)

We’d munch on our Chips Ahoy and look out over the expansive desert valley, then just starting its boom as one of the country’s fastest growing areas.

Of course, we’d take ample time to enjoy the view and throw rocks over vacant edges just to see how far they’d tumble.

(Side note: Rock throwing, especially from high places, is up there with hole digging and sprinkler running on the list of simple activities that are 10 times more fun as a kid.)

Once we were satisfied with our stay, we headed back down to our lives below.

Back again

When I returned to the mountain last week I was a bit shocked by how small it seemed.

Squaw Peak and its sister mountain to the east, Camelback, were larger than life back when I was a young Phoenician.

Having spent the past six years around the Olympics and Cascades, however, the two peaks are almost like foothills now.

But that didn’t take away from the experience of hiking back up the mountain with Steve — still living in Phoenix and still one of my three dads.

The trail was just how I remembered.

It snaked up and around the mountain at a gradual pace, with the same palo verde tree offering shade two-thirds of the way up, and the same steps testing my legs at the top.

Of course, many other things had changed.

It was now I who had to wait for Steve — 58 years old and the subject of several surgeries — after each switchback.

There were no Chips Ahoy to be eaten once we reached the top either, victims of adult sensibility.

Instead, we ate bananas, talked about life and gazed upon a valley that grew exponentially in 20-plus years since we first shared the mountain together.

As we caught our breath, countless cars buzzed below on an expansive grid of freeways and roads that sprang up seemingly overnight.

Children threw rocks and giggled as they watched each pebble skip down the rough, red edges of the mountain.

Part of me wanted to join in, but I knew it wouldn’t be the same.

In the blink of an eye that is one’s life, few things stay as they are. Except for that one place.


Matt Schubert is the outdoors and sports columnist for the Peninsula Daily News. His column regularly appears on Thursdays and Fridays. He can be reached at

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