AZT day 33, cowpie camp to Utah, 17 miles

After such a thrilling couple of days walking rim-to-rim in the Grand Canyon, this spot is such a downer – no views in a flat field filled with tumbleweeds and cowpies. At least they’re dry, the pies that is, and I easily kicked them aside for my tent. But each thorny branch had to be lifted carefully without getting stuck to my gloves and flung aside to make room my wee tent site.

But oddly, the space is flat and comfortable. I’m used to my foam mat now and the spot is perfectly flat. The moon is back to waxing and shines on me in this huge space, casting gorgeous shadows from the gnarly juniper above my eyes. I’m awakened sometime in the middle of the night by whispers of wind that transform into gusts and finally, a steady breeze. I sleep surprisingly well.

Morning comes and I realize I did exactly the right thing by pressing forward. It’s chilly, but not cold, still dry and the wind feels manageable, at least for now. But arising each day dusty and dirty in a dry camp, shoving down a few bars, packing up and moving on is becoming less attractive. I need more than the promise of a long day on an unchanging plateau to get me going. Crushing miles just for the sake of crushing miles is not going to cut it.

But I’m here and I have a decent day’s walk to get to the Northern Terminus in Utah. It’s time to get going on this final day. Right away, the trail is a trench filled with dried, prickly plants. For the first time I come across sage and run my fingers along it and bring them to my nose for a whiff of sweetness. Shockingly pink and purple flowers cling to the dust in clumps, their bright glare almost like a sound. I’m lucky the ground is dry and cracked now as I encounter evidence of footsteps sinking into deep, clingy mud.

As I begin to find my rhythm, I come across a hiker. Captain Underpants or “Cappy” is walking the Hayduke Trail, more a route than any kind of official path running from Arches to Bryce Canyon and through the Grand Canyon. He’s geared up in a coat that looks warmer than mine but tells me he’s been absolutely freezing these past days. I tell him how much I loved the canyon and he says his trail takes him to much more remote spots and for far longer.

When I admit I’d skipped sections starting with an excuse of avoiding bad weather, but then switching to the more truthful answer that i just couldn’t take any more long, boring days of ponderosa/juniper/dust, he congratulates me. “You have too much self-respect for that,” he says. True, I’ve already proven I can walk every single last step of a long distance hike. My time left on this earth is far shorter than most of the hiker’s, why not be aware of when I’ve seen enough?

Cappy tells me it’s all easy to the end, so I press on, reaching the last of the spectacular wrought iron gates. Each time, I say the same thing, “The Arizona Trail has the loveliest gates.” With a huge bolt to slide back and forth to open and close and the state of Arizona with the trail a dotted line, these might be the most distinctive bits of this experience, ones my hands have touched one by one as I’ve moved north.

Just as I close the gate, a hiker catches up to me. It’s Taejen from way back at Roosevelt Lake. Of course he’s surprised to see me, wondering if I am the same Blissful he met weeks ago. The one and only, I tell him, not that fast, just selective. At first I’m not keen on walking with him. Pictures were posted on Facebook showing Taejen, Clothesline and John at a trail angel’s home in Flagstaff being very well taken care of, the same trail angel who ignored my pleas for help.

But he slows to my pace and we talk, eventually my story of how hard things were for me spilling out. Taejen tells me about his own anxiety and vulnerability. I’m shocked because he hides it well, but also because it seems the trail itself put him in my path at this very moment to show me that we all struggle. His is less about being fit enough to keep moving forward. He’s only 31 and does not have arthritis or two new hips. He worries about what’s next, how he’ll get out of here and if he can get where he needs to go.

He then tells me something I hadn’t thought of. What I needed in Flagstaff was for people to communicate with me in my emotional language. When they could, like Sam could, they helped me move forward. All the talk about gnats and links to websites were utterly useless to me and only made the people offering these tidbits feel better, that somehow they were actually doing something. The result on my end was an erasure of my distress and a silencing of my plea for help. That’s why I felt so isolated and confused.

As we march on, Taejen continues sharing about his own life and relationships , and I begin to feel stronger and put my moment of bad luck into perspective. He’s going so fast now and all of this requires some alone time to sort, I pull back and tell him I’ll catch up at the next water source.

I really need to sit down. I’m thirsty and tired. I eat some food and look out towards the end of the plateau where large red mountains are peaking up. The dusty ground is greening with tiny plants. Flowers bloom in tight bunches. Another hiker passes me, but doesn’t bother to stop or say hello. He does notice the patch on my pack that my Kiwi friend Neil had made for me. Wahine Toa Te Araroa, Strong Woman of the Long Pathway. He tells me how he hiked it then runs off. Good on you, whoever you are.

It’s up and down now as I follow the contour of the hills to dry washes. I stop again and finish my water. I have definitely hit the end of my energy, finding myself exactly where I need to be. The red mountains are more obvious now, Utah is getting close. Above, the sky is getting gray and a large white cloud like a UFO hangs over the desert. The wind picks up, pushing my pack over.

It’s not far now to the final game waterer. I move better after a break but get stopped in my tracks seeing my first rattlesnake. An Arizona Ridge Nosed Rattler, the state reptile. He lies across the trail, his head in shade. I tap gently with my pole, but he is in a state of delirium. I leave him be and cross behind him, taking a few pictures. What a beauty he is, red, black and tan.

I reach another burn area, so scorched, the ground itself is a different color. Trees and bushes can’t stop the rain which tore through here in the last monsoon and dug deep trenches. Just above I find the fence protecting the water and head up to find Taejen lounging in the shade. He fills up enough to walk the final three miles and politely tells me he wants to move on so as not to miss a chance for a hitch. “I hope I don’t see you again in the nicest way possible.”

I drink a liter and eat some more, starting to feel bloated and unhealthy from so much cheap hiking food. The wind gusts and the sky looks angry. I follow a wash that leads to a final rise where the red mountains I’ve been following finally come into full view. I’m lookin at the Vermillion Cliffs. Paria Canyon and Buckskin Gulch are tucked inside those cliffs, an astonishingly beautiful six-day hike I did a few years back, one of the most memorable of my life.

It’s a long walk down, the trail working its way in lazy zigzags down the hill. Of course, it’s littered with rocks that hurt my feet and making moving a bit awkward, but that’s how this story has to end, pretty much as it began. I take my time, the wind whipping so hard now I can barely keep my balance as I reach up to hold my hat on my head. Still more scrub and prickly pear, dust building up in my shoes.

Just as I reach the flats and can see the road and campsite ahead, John the Baptist catches me.

“How’d you get here?”

“I walked.”

There’s really no reason to share my journey with him. He’s too caught up in his own success to notice a middle aged lady like me and that getting here, even skipping, is a huge accomplishment.

We get to the monument, and he snaps my picture, waiting for his sister before he gets his picture so they can touch it together. After I do the honors, they quickly leave to look for a ride and I am alone with the wind and blowing sand.

I came to walk this trail because Blissful needed to give it a try after new hips, a rescue on the Continental Divide Trail and an unpleasant experience with a recruiter who wanted me to give her up for a job. I needed to see what was in me now – could I walk big miles, could I take the grind of a long slog on hard trail to sometimes less-than-spectacular views, would I still have access to that blissful spark of feeling absolutely right with the world. It wasn’t quite 40 days in the desert, but the storm is building and I’ve seen enough – at least for now.

It’s funny that on this hike, I spoke to the goddess more than ever, that part of me that’s wise and measured, rather than reactive and stunted. She helped me work out all sorts of issues with solutions that always elude me back in my “real” life. She also kept me safe and strong on a trail where I would go for days without seeing any people and felt uncertain I could manage the challenges I faced.

I should tell you that I never skipped parts of trail because I couldn’t handle them. I skipped intentionally, respecting my desire to enjoy (mostly) what I was experiencing and to not push through just because that’s what’s required. I still resist shoving in ear buds, gritting my teeth and pushing through. I’ve always found “crushing miles” a silly goal with no point other than to brag how far you can walk. And yet I, too, have fallen under its spell, impressing myself at day’s end that I got myself so far. I wouldn’t be entirely honest if I didn’t tell you that some days I had to reward myself with gummy bears for each mile walked.

There were so many incredible moments on this hike – cowgirl camping, the nearly unimaginable views from sky islands, collecting life-sustaining water in odd places, fields of wildflowers and all those goofy saguaro, being so completely and utterly alone, the glorious rock walls of the canyon – and yet, a moment that will always stand out for me as truly telling of my person was when I walked on the road to Jacob Lake and made the decision to stick out my thumb for a hitch.

Perhaps “thru-hiking” is no longer in my future. It’s too much – too many miles, too much time away from Richard, too much of a bad diet. I’m changing inside, my needs are changing, and I’ll have to accommodate what my body and spirit tell my mind to do, rather than to override them and force something that is becoming anathema to me.

Earlier today, Cappy congratulated me for drawing the line on that 43-mile road walk. The decision to say enough was enough offered me this space right now, to finish on a high note and still with great affection for this wild, arid and rugged landscape. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Published by alison young

Alison Young is the Blissful Hiker, a voice artist and sometime saunterer. 📣🐥👣🎒

Reader Comments

  1. I loved your introspection in this writing. You are a brave and honest woman, and your goddess is right on target.

  2. You did it! — it looked like a really tough hike at times. I applaud your thoughtful decision making, not just completing miles for the sake of miles. Your photos and text were wonderful-observant and appreciative of the tiniest bit of natural beauty and human empathy to sustain you. It sounds like you have better defined what being out in the wilderness nourishes you- its not the thru hiking but appreciating little triumphs, beauty and finding human connections; not defining yourself by how you are treated, finding out who and what to treasure and who and what to ignore.

    I have hiked the Bass Lake Trail in the Grand Canyon in late March, starting in snow, and remember the endless ups and downs, and dried up water sources on the Tonto platform. It sounds like parts of the Arizona trails are improved from many years ago. I will look forward to your future adventures which may not depend on thru-hiking but instead are selective glimpses of our natural world.

    1. Thank you for this lovely comment, Jennine! It was such a learning experience, a hard one, but good. Funny how so many are dazzled by miles hikes fast rather than how walking through a natural setting with all its beauty and challenges can transform a person’s soul. Funny that John Muir himself hated the word “hike” preferring saunter because it implies less a goal set to achieve but rather being open to what comes our way. I found the last day dreadfully monotonous until those flowers, the snakes, the two men I met, the waterer and that long zigzag in wind to the state line. Divine!

      For sure, the AZT is a much better trail these days. Most hikers follow a line on their phones and can never really get lost or miss a water source! Trails will be hiked in my future I’m sure, but my bliss needs to part ways with the angsty rush to crush miles, that’s for sure!

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