The Arizona National Scenic Trail is an 800-mile footpath from Mexico to Utah that traverses the entire north–south length of its namesake state. It moves through diverse landscapes linking deserts, “sky islands,” canyons, forests as well as two national parks, Saguaro and Grand Canyon.
Take care of the luxuries and the necessities will take care of themselves.
what’s a luxury item?
On a thru-hike, the goal is to complete the hike, which usually means hiking all day, nearly every day for miles on end. While I am becoming less enamored with speed and “crushing miles,” that reality remains if you want to actually get anywhere.
Which is why it’s imperative that your “base weight” – the cumulative pounds of all your gear minus food, fuel, water and what you’re wearing – be as light as possible so you can move with ease and lessen the chances of injuries. And that means purchasing high tech ultralight gear that’s oftentimes, very expensive.
Most backpackers speak of the big three items – pack, tent and sleeping system – since they account for the bulk and heft on your back, and cost the most. As well, these items tend to constitute your survival. If you have shelter that keeps you dry and warm, and a means to carry it, you should be ok.
All the other items are important and selected carefully, as well as changed out over the years, things like head lamps, chargers, wallets and rain gear. What often doesn’t get discussed in detail are luxury items. What extra things will you take to make the hike not just a grinding march to the finish but a pleasurable journey through nature?
I take very little in this regard, but have now settled on adding an inflatable pillow to my gear list. And why, you might ask, when I could simply roll up extra clothes and stuff them in a stuff sack under my head? First of all, there aren’t always any extra clothes for that. I have tried laying my head on my food bag (the food itself is inside an odor proof resealable bag) But, as you can imagine, the size changes over time and most of the food feels hard and crunchy!
I’m not exactly a spring chicken anymore, and sleep is paramount on a thru-hike after so much physical activity. On this latest trek, I needed to change out my mattress when my blow-up blew out from a spiky bit of grass. I found to my delight that a closed-foam pad actually worked better for me.
That being said, I wasn’t ready to give up a blow-up pillow, which somehow was spared being spiked…
What makes this pillow so great?
Sea to Summit designed a pillow with baffles, a kind of curved and contoured air bladder that when filled, fits your head perfectly whether you’re a back or side sleeper like me. Unlike my mattress, the pillow makes no sound as I move and adjust during the night. Shaped like a fat C, it cradles my neck whether I’m writing the blog or fast asleep.
The polyester itself is soft, though I did add a washable pillow case for one more layer of joy. I don’t know if this aspect is really necessary, but it certainly made life easier – there’s a multi-function mini-valve that closes off when filling the pillow and holds the air in place. Open the valve completely, and all the air comes out. I found this made it easier to fine tune the filling, though I usually tuned to solid brick.
I did not end up using the ‘pillow lock’ to hold it inside the hood of my warmest sleeping bag. It’s a set of self-adhesive hook and loop patches. I actually found the pillow case itself kept things in place as I slept. And what’s more, this is an ultralight pillow that weighs just slightly over two ounces. A lot of comfort bang for the extra “weight,” I’d say.
In a nutshell, I love this pillow and, if you’re over 50 and want to sleep well at night, I highly recommend picking one up (with that smashing bright purple cade!) for your next outing. Your neck will thank me!
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?”
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.
It’s the last night I’ll be hot in my tent. The wild wind finally settles and I barely lay the quilt over me. Our neighbors are up before dawn and their headlamps bleed into my tent. Hasn’t anyone heard of the red light as an alternative to the blinding setting?
I always take a headlamp and batteries, but never use it. My night vision is good enough for me to get myself to the fancy composting privy. As long as I’m up, I decide to get ready to head up and out. The direct sun did a number on me yesterday and I still have a mild headache. Perhaps it would be safest to get some miles behind me before the sun blasts into the canyon.
It’s uphill all day today except for a very few bits. 4,200 feet in seven miles. There’s only one water source on the way up at Manzanita, a kind of rest area with benches, another fancy two-story bathroom and running water. I’ll need to fill up and ration through the climb.
The plan is to get to the rim, then hike as far as possible on the Grand Canyon Highway – which is plowed but closed to the public – and try snd beat the cold front coming in. The reason for the road is the trail is still covered in snow drifts. It would be a wet and muddy affair to risk it, as well as slow.
Right now, I pray for strength and endurance to get up these canyon walls. Truth is, the trail is spectacular. An engineering marvel, it’s set against the rock walls in such a way to look natural but has been blasted, seated and reinforced in place. Sure, it’s a work out to climb, but there’s nothing at all technical involved.
At first, it’s a gentle rise next to the roiling creek through high, red walls. The destructive forces that created this masterpiece are still at play in fallen rock and worn down edges I walk next to. The colors are brilliant and patterns fanciful.
I follow Bright Angel Creek through heaping mounds of rock slowly shredded apart by bushes snd trees. It’s light enough to see as the sun glows behind large ramparts. The trail is s gradual rise and I warm up to the challenge slowly.
I quickly reach Manzanita with its beautifully built bridge taking me to a beautiful terrace of leafy trees and benches. I fill up a liter and gulp it down, then pack 2 1/2 to be safe. Sisu told me she likes to linger in the morning with coffee, but I walk so slowly, I’m surprised they haven’t caught up.
That means the canyon is all mine right now. No runners are clogging up the path today. It’s just me and the “fwee-fweeee” of a canyon wren.
The trail is steeper now, rising quickly in steep switchbacks above the pumphouse. This is one of the oddities of the canyon, how the zigzag of the trail seems to stack on top of itself as seen from above because the steepness is so dramatic.
I move slowly, but steadily and find just the rhythm to fall in love with this magnificent tight canyon. I snap pictures, seeing all the way to the top when the trail turns to the left up a different canyon. Across from me is Roaring Springs, a cascade in full roar. I laugh when a trail spur points to it yet emphasizes there’s no water.
This will be the canyon that gets me to the rim. But how? I can only see s portion of trail in front of me. It follows the vertical rock wall, then seems to disappear. Sometimes it switches back, but other times, it’s hidden by the shape of the rock.
The trail is wide enough, but the edge is right there and a stumble could be catastrophic, the bottom hidden now in dark shadow. I’m very careful and hug the wall as it curves over me then around in a U-shape.
Logs create steps at one steep spot, that curves back on itself over a large promontory. I find a shady spot to drink a liter and eat a snack. As I’ve climbed higher into this colorful rock, I’ve seen the rim get ever so closer. It’s white rock atop red and appears absolutely vertical. In fact, most of the red rock ahead is adorned with towers and impenetrable buttresses.
So far, I’ve mostly sidled the rock. Now it appears, the real climbing begins. But not before I descend steeply to a bridge across the canyon, taking me to the other, and better, side for the task at hand.
Now the real work begins with a series of steep zigzags bringing me closer to the wall that appeared unclimbable. The miracle of the engineering is the trail’s invisibility from below. As my path is revealed bit by bit, it creates a joyous tension that’s truly exhilarating. Each twist and turn is a surprise as I walk it, but also from the views revealed, sometimes of a 1,000 foot air space to the canyon floor.
Now, the joy is in the route revealed. How do we get past that giant rock? Why, a tunnel. the Supai Tunnel to be exact, another spiffy long-drop and water spigots that are off at the moment because of freezing temps.
I notice it is getting noticeably colder as I ascend. Patches of snow cling to the walls. I’ve finally met the white rock, but it’s not the very tip top. Above is dirt with massive pines. My ponderosa are back!
It’s still many zigzags to get closer to the trees. From above, the trail is visible. I come to the Coconino view and consider lunch here, but it’s cold so I settle for pictures and a last look. Volt and Sisu never catch up.
It’s sad pressing on, but bitter cold is coming and I need to get a move on. I wonder if I’ll remember these spectacular past two days, how hard it was, how elated I felt, the views and trail and friends, the sound of the rushing water and the drama of the brooding rock.
Just as I begin ascending, a man walks down. He looks too casual to be a runner. Jeff lives here, working for the National Park. He’s an EMT and wilderness ranger but mostly builds things. And now just taking a stroll.
I tell him about my plan to walk and avoid the cold and he assures me, there are other hikers walking the road, as well as park employees driving it.
I head on and have lunch next to two large, black and hungry ravens. It’s cold and getting overcast, so I begin my journey. The ranger yesterday wasn’t totally wrong in that road walking is pretty unpleasant. It’s hard on the feet, but also the eyes. It’s a different forest here with aspen and fir, but early spring means a somber mix of melting snow and brown grass.
I last about three miles, then put my thumb out. Don’t get me wrong, I love to hike, but this kind of hiking serves no purpose but to transfer the hiker from one place to the next. It’s 43 miles to the next town and will be 16 degrees in two days.
A truck slows down and it’s Jeff! He is on his way to Jacob Lake, so no trouble to drop me. He tells me very few hikers hitch as we pass a few. There’s Waldo wrapped up in a scarf. I think that’s Clothesline and John the Baptist.
The landscape is lovely at a faster speed, though still awaiting spring. Jeff tells these beautiful alpine meadows turn brilliant green with millions of flowers for a brief moment, the aroma intoxicating. Now it’s straw brown and I can’t tell you how happy I am to skip it.
I hop back on trail near Jacob Lake, an ordinary forest again. It’s about 26 miles to the end, so one more night out and (hopefully) an early return home. There are many details to manage and I get distracted by them to the point I don’t pay attention to where I’ve entered.
Just when it’s time to look for a camp spot, I walk into a burn zone. Tall trees are charred and make for an unsafe place to pitch a tent. The ground is ashy and everything is charred. I don’t quite have the daylight to walk through, but I push forward hoping to find an unburned area.
No such luck. The sootiness goes on and on. It makes me sad to see this waste, and it emphasizes my own ‘burn out.’ The Grand Canyon was such a charge and this just makes me depressed. It’s exactly why thru-hiking is beginning to seem absurd to me, all that walking through sameness just puts me off.
The trail dips down into a ravine, but rather than exit, it stays down there following a wash with logs reduced to cinders falling in. It’s not easy walking in gravelly sand and it goes on and on in this dark pit a long way.
From road walk in a frigid forest to a ashy burn zone to a wash in a dark ravine, how is this fun? I can’t camp in here so keep walking seeing the contours flatten on the map. It’s a huge meadow of dried mud, lumpy from cattle’s footsteps. I follow the perimeter looking and looking as mountains appear ahead and the sun sets in pink and purple.
I finally choose a flattish spot and dive in quickly as it’s getting cold. This may very well be my worst camp site of the hike. It’s flat enough and absolutely silent, so perhaps I’ll sleep well. I’m tired from the climb and I’ll close my eyes now conjuring up the beauty and excitement of that moment, letting the bits that came after to act in service of simply getting me closer to putting this hike to bed.
I barely sleep tossing and turning trying to figure out what to do. Should I wait out the weather or move forward? In New Zealand I learned sometimes it’s best to keep moving. Yes, there will be some snow, but it won’t last and only after it comes will the temps drop. Maybe it’s better to get ahead of the weather.
And that means hiking to the further campsite today. Kyle and Michelle leave with their camper as I emerge. I heard the group day hiking in and out of the canyon leave early just as it got light. So only Tami is left choosing not to join them, and drawing the short straw to drive me to Grand Canyon village this morning and skip yet another long, monotonous ponderosa pine forest section.
I really like her. A skier, woodworker, RVer, she’s no nonsense and we’re exactly the same age. It’s a decent drive to the permit office and I am so glad I skipped all this.
The AZT is certainly making me rethink thru-hiking. So much boring sameness to get to the highlights, especially in Northern Arizona. The weather is pushing me forward but so is the spectacle of the Grand Canyon, which takes my breath away as we pass viewing points.
I am number seven in line for a permit and get behind people seemingly wanting to analyze every trail before deciding where to go. It’s slightly maddening because my request is simple and I really need the full day to get there. It would have been healthier to start at dawn, but no permits are issued by phone.
I finally get mine, only to be admonished that I won’t be used to road walking on the North Rim, and so will likely camp within the park boundaries, another $8 please. I don’t argue, knowing the North Rim climb of over 4,000 feet is a killer, but my hope is to move as far as I can once I reach the rim.
Tami really saves me. The village is large and there is a bus, but it helps immeasurably to be taken directly to the store. I was so hungry these last days, I buy far too much. Then, at the outfitters, I’m unable to find anything resembling a sleeping bag liner to make mine warmer. Tami suggests I buy two emergency blankets and I throw them in. Could be a life saver when lows hit the teens.
She drops me at a road and I walk into the Kaibab trailhead. The wind is wild and the place is packed with day hikers and a few backpackers. People ask if I’ll sleep down there and I explain I will also continue to the North Rim then Utah.
The Grand Canyon is a nearly impossible to explain phenomenon. Layer up layer of color revealed in birthday cake erosion, all done by a river over eons. I’m absolutely bowled over by its sheer size, but also the distance to the bottom. Have I made a mistake in setting this goal?
My permit is for an actual site, not an overflow or pack mule area usually reserved for AZT hikers. My plan is described as an ‘aggressive itinerary,’ and comes with a solo warning: “Hiking solo means you have nobody to help should you run into trouble.”
I know that and it makes me scared. But all I can do is set my legs for a steep descent and enter this phenomenal space.
The trail is dusty and it flies in my facd from the big wind gusts. I hold onto my hat, saying “hi” to all I pass, some people moving well, others struggling up the steep climb. It’s a wide trail built with low rock walls and sometimes in rock tiles. Mostly, wooden pieces are placed at intervals to prevent erosion.
It makes for hard walking and I eventually loosen my knees and jump from one lumpy bit to the next. First the color is a deep umber with ponderosa hanging on ledges, then we enter a more washed out gray area, with a sage green on flat mesas.
What makes the Kaibab so special is that the trail ventures out onto peninsulas so the entire time you feel like you’re floating above the canyons. Fanciful shapes come into view as we hit a flat bit, one aptly named “Oo Ah view.”
At Cedar Ridge it seems all the day hikers pull out sandwiches and find shade. I push on having not brought enough water for this total sun exposure. It’s not terribly hot, but it’s relentless. Even down can wear you out as my calves begin to tighten.
At ‘Skeleton” the trail completely changes into a tight and very steep set of switchbacks. I can see deep into the canyon as they descend, changing color from red to gray.
Down and down I go passing hedgehog cactus with bright purple blossoms. I feel the river getting closer as I arrive at “The Tipoff” where a beautiful shelter has been set with shade and water collection barrels. I filter a liter and drink it right down, then take more with me.
It’s now that I arrive at the steepest section, switchbacks laying nearly on top of each other all the way to the muddy green Colorado. It seems impossible that my body will go all the way down to the suspension bridge I sed below.
I continue leaping ever so gently from one raised lump to the next, letting my body run/fall down the trail. Many ask if I’m camping below and I explain it’s still many miles up from the bottom. I pass old people, families, a couple of guys who try to stop my seeing their friend pee off the side.
“I’ll avert my eyes!”
And finally I reach a tunnel and the bridge. Across it I find a faucet so have lunch and drink two liters in shade. My legs are so happy to go up again as I plod past rubber boats, then the campground and Phantom Ranch where air conditioned cabins are powered by massive solar panels.
I follow Clear Creek into a tight canyon of twists and turns. The walls are thousands of feet high and tight around me. This trail was built by the CCC in the 1930s and is wide and well buttressed with rock walls.
I pass tourists on a day hike to Ribbon Falls and dozens of runners in the middle of a Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim event. Most move well, but they must be wrecked only carrying a water vest.
I am wrecked, simply exhausted from the excitement of the descent and its challenge on my body in the bright sun. I shuffle up into this extraordinary canyon of rock ramparts and peaks, the creek rushing loudly.
Beautiful bridges abound and my fear that I can’t get to camp fades. But I feel a bit loopy. I did not sleep well, but this could be heat exhaustion, so I find a rock seat in the shade and take a pause.
A backpacker rounds the bend in a similar top as mine. Sisu is an Arizona Trail Hiker. I am so happy she’s here because it gives me courage that heading on is the right choice. She says she bought s bunch of hand warmers for the cold and thinks maybe my emergency blankets are the smarter move.
Sisu is a strong hiker but tells me she too “Brown Blazed” walking the forest roads rather than trail in many instances. I admit I skipped from Grand View to the canyon, for weather but also because I’d had enough.
She eventually heads on, walking fast as the canyon widens, opening up and getting steeper. Bright green cottonwoods grow on sandbars in the center of the creek.
I’m very tired and ready for camp as the trail goes up then down into willows. The runners keep coming down and one couple heads up to the falls. At the junction, I meet up with Sisu and Volt, a young male hiker leaning back and enjoying the view down our tight canyon.
They want to cross the river and see the falls, but I am wiped out, so climb up and snap a picture from the trail. Mountain paintbrush in fluorescent orange lines the path and the prickly pear are on the cusp of blooming.
Finally, I see a flat spot ahead with cottonwoods. There’s a ranger house, toilets and sites with picnic tables. The water is shut off, but the creek is close. The two catch up to me changing their mind about the falls. I tell them I have a real permit and invite them to join me in a shaded spot. They’re both so grateful and I tell them how grateful I am that they’re here and I won’t go alone up to the North Rim and its cold weather.
We gather water, set tents and eat at the table. Such lovely, easy to talk to hikers; so real and down to earth. A surprise at the end of a glorious day. One that’s left me in awe, but also exhausted. 4300 feet of climbing await with no water for five miles.
But now there are friends doing the same walk and it gives me the strength I’ll need.
I wake up as the sun streams into the tent, allowing myself extra time to rest. There are no new bites on my body and the tent is bone dry. I’m so grateful for my stone bench and soft, juniper needles site.
The forest continues in warm sun and a gentle breeze. I hardly need to drink anything because I barely work to propel my body forward. I think about this being Lent and my being out in the desert (so to speak, now that I’m in Northern Arizona and the saguaro have disappeared)
The popular image of Lent is about giving something up, but that’s an over simplification of the journey, on invests in of imitating Christ tempted in the desert. My temptations usually have to do with toxic patterns, like blaming myself for other people’s bad behavior rather than recognizing the behavior for what it is and ensuring I erect healthy boundaries.
In Flagstaff, a man at the hotel befriended me, only to pull away and offer up a kind of self-serving sanctimony when I asked for the smallest bit of help. It really hurt my feelings until I realized he could never be a true friend.
Here, it feels peaceful in the dappled morning light still casting an orange glow. I need these easy days, where the miles just disappear as I walk and sing. I don’t feel there’s any hurry now and laugh remembering my Grand Teton Crest hike when I told backpackers I was going for my SKT, the Slowest Known Time.
It was frenetic in Flagstaff but I’m proud I pulled it off on my own visiting the doctor, then picking up four different kinds of meds including permethrin to spread over my entire body and a strong antihistamine that brought down the swelling but knocked me out completely.
I struggled for hours to dry my washed quilt, with all the feathers pushed into the wrong chambers. I texted Hammock Gear over and over, giving up on the painstaking task, and planning to buy or rent a bag. That was until someone suggested a repair person named Santo at Snow Mountain River who ripped open the seams and shoved the feathers where they belonged before sewing it back together.
All these errands were close by if I had a car, but required walking since I wasn’t getting any help. (One old shrew at the hotel whom I asked for a ride snapped at me, “Isn’t there Uber?” Yes, if I want to spend that much for every errand, but sheesh, you can’t just drive me two miles?! Remember it takes nearly an hour to walk two miles especially carrying a wet sleeping bag.)
Still, I explored downtown and the college campus. I resupplied, ate at a brewery, and met the couple who ultimately helped me in the end – and all done with independent and dramatic flair in flip flops. I wouldn’t ho do far to say I enjoyed Flagstaff, but I found enjoyable parts.
The wind through juniper has a special sound. The trail makes a slow ascent to a large metal tank with “Russell” scrawled on it. I have a snack but I walk on to a big muddy pond for water and lunch. It filters well as I lean on my backpack against a tree in the wind. I spy several horses wander by above in the trees. Are they wild?
As I walk on, I see bones of a large animal picked clean. I also see the rim of the Grand Canyon coming into view, one long strip of red and brown stone above pine forest. It’s so awe-inspiring, I feel giddy. The trail winds around the edge of a rim, and even dives steeply down and then out of a ravine for no known purpose. Bicyclists are told to dismount here and I wonder if the trail builder thought I might be getting bored with all this flat walking and need a shake up.
But the landscape itself is changing as I follow the edge looking down at a meadow far below with the painted desert beyond. My undulating trail is speckled with hundreds of spring beauties in white and pink.
I leave the trail and head straight up to another wildlife tank. It’s brilliant how they collect snow on a corrugated surface that melts into large containers underground. A small overflow contains clear water with a bit of graceful green plants reaching towards the surface.
I fill up and eat as Elliot arrives, a Quebecois section hiker. He rented snow shoes in Flagstaff for Mount Humphries then hitched back to return them. He also hiked the Te Araroa and we share a few stories before I head on.
He never catches me and I’m certain he follows the road rather than this undulating trail in the woods with only fleeting glimpses of the canyon’s fanciful rock. I feel so happy and right with the world in this moment, I sing Mahler’s Ging heut morgen ubers feld, my most favorite walking song.
I stop at the side of the trail looking out at the pink dusty desert beyond when two bikers show up. Jeff and Holly or Freako and Turbo ask about my hike and how I’m doing. I mention I plan to camp just ahead and they tell me they will too and ride off, only to turn around and ask if they can get me anything at the store.
Chips and beer!
What kind of amazing people do things like that? Keepers, I say, keepers. I am so touched especially after the bed bug ordeal. It’s still a few more miles and I lose sight of the canyon walls. Several helicopters zoom overhead. Tours? Heading home? A backpacker passes me. He asks if we’ve met and I realize it’s “You’re so mean” or Freak of Nature from the ride into Pine. He’s hiking back from the South Rim and mentions hurrying to avoid the bad weather.
I wander through the interpretive nature walk with about 20 signs describing the devastation of dwarf mistletoe. The Kaibab is comin’ for ya, dwarf MT. I also call the park to try and secure a permit to camp in the canyon. The ranger tells me he thinks the Arizona forests are boring as hell.
But it’s the bad weather coming that sticks in my mind as I arrive at the tower and climb up for a fabulous view of the canyon beyond the forest. When I turn around, I look back to the San Francisco Peaks I left two days ago.
There’s no sign of Jeff and Holly but another group comes by. Tami, Michelle, John, Kristen, Mark, Eric are all flabbergasted I’m walking so far and immediately invite to camp and eat dinner with them. How is it some people just naturally reach out and are generous? I tell them what I really need is a ride in the morning to get a permit to camp in the canyon, already fairly certain I won’t waste my precious life on yet another long day in ponderosa pine and no views.
John immediately volunteers. It’s getting late for me, so I set near their group of large RV’s and enjoy sitting in a chair. Tami hands me a beer, Michelle some pretzels and Kristen cooks up pasta as we all pull out our phones to scan the weather.
Oh dear. I have a whole new set of problems. The temperatures are going to drop into the teens in three days – and I do not have the proper gear. I call Richard and discuss possibilities with my new friends. Go ahead or wait it out?
Another challenge – and yet, there’s an outfitter in Grand Canyon Village. Maybe I can make this work after all.
What a wild few days I’ve had in Flagstaff schlepping my gear to the Loggermat and Snow Mountain River and then leaving it tied up in a garbage bag in the hot sun in hopes every last living organism is wiped out.
I’m up early packing that gear and leaving a small pile of goodies for the maids including the special soap for the sleeping bag which only comes in an extra-large bottle. I feel good, the swelling down now and everything as clean as I can get it.
A little residual bitterness lingers, but it’s funny how many people reached out not so much with concrete help but with calming words, like this one, “Your now is not forever.” Helpful wise words even if what I really needed was help washing gear.
Still, lovely Sam comes to my rescue and swings by at 7:30 to take me up to Babbitt Lake off of West Fort Valley Ranch Road/AZ 180. His mom is a friend of a friend and a big walking advocate. She apparently sent the Facebook post of my face all swollen from bites asking for help to her son, and he and his girlfriend (also named Sam) said, “We gotta help her!”
Funny how all I really needed was someone with a cool head to help me figure out how to get back on trail. If I hike huge days, I could walk from Flagstaff, but I’m exhausted from this ordeal and the super strong antihistamine, so last night at Mother Road Brewing, we looked at a map and found where the trail swings close to the highway about 40 miles north.
Sam actually knows the spot and expertly passes logging trucks and shuttles me up there. We pass an area near the Arizona Snowbowl still filled with snow and he says this is a popular for cross country skiing. I wonder what that might be like for walkers right now.
It’s a few miles down a forest road and I see the lake, smack dab in the middle of nowhere. Most of this country is dotted with cinder cone volcanoes. I step out onto pumice and Sam snaps my picture before heading back into his own life, a bonafide trail angel.
It’s windy and dry here, not a trace of snow or mud. I’m on ranch land – Cedar, Tub and Babbitt. No cattle graze just yet, perhaps it’s still too cold. Sam warns me snakes are out and I keep my eyes on the trail. Ahead is giant, rounded Chapel Mountain, and behind me are the San Francisco Peaks with pointy Mount Humphreys still snow-capped.
It’s funny that further away they appear larger, growing straight up from this expanse. It may be flat, but I’m high, around 6,500 feet. It’s so open and wild here, like Mongolia. Two birds flutter in the wind, spinning around each other in front of me. The barbed wire fence hums.
I take a wrong turn onto a different dirt road, but it doesn’t seem to matter too much delivering me to a single track path that makes many twists and turns for reasons I can’t surmise. Juniper trees are gnarled by wind and snow. Even the dead trunks look like dancers in a dramatic pose.
I am absolutely alone and I love it. Only footprints speak to all the other hikers aheads, ones I hope make the path clear. I get a bloody nose and fill up the bandana I tied on the outside of my pack for this purpose with red mucous. The dryness and altitude make my nostrils crack.
There’s little variation in the trail, but on the single track, I move up and down some. The forest thickens as the day goes on, but my snowy mountains are still in sight. There’s a certain intimacy to today’s walk. The earth and my feet feel as one. Is it getting back on trail after an ordeal or the fact that now I can go a little easier if I like that makes me feel so connected?
It’s still unvaried with very few flowers or cactus. A lizard scurries to the side, then bends his head back in an S-shape to see me. One juniper appears to have fallen across the trail but goes on living in this supine position. I cross forest roads in all types of tread, some with deep ruts in dried mud, others barely showing two tracks.
At one, the sign points to a “wildlife waterer.” The water sources are few and far between, so I walk the half mile to a large gated area. Corrugated metal covers what must be the collection site and I enter a gate to a small, concrete collection area. A sign reminds sportsman that this is here for their game and their expense, so don’t vandalize it.
I set up on the concrete to collect. There’s algae growing, but the water looks clear. Still, everything needs to be filtered and I hang my gravity feed. Lunch is tuna, cheese, a bar and an entire liter of water.
I enjoy this quiet, sunny spot for a good while, the wind whistling through dry grass. I make calculations for where the next water is and where I’ll dry camp, but I do so from this off-trail spot.
That was a mistake.
The mileage is much closer from here as the crow flies, but the trail in actuality, winds and turns and zigzags. Perhaps it’s to prevent erosion, but it does make for a long path and my next water is quite far.
Though it’s not really a problem. The day is not especially hot, and I barely have to work to keep walking. I’m surprised that I manage to walk so far without intending to. No wonder this is where people begin ‘crushing’ big miles. We’re trail fit and the end is in sight. Funny that for me, I want to slow down.
The snowy peaks have followed me all day, but now disappear as I enter a juniper forest. I’m ready to look for a camp site even if it’s early. I walk up and down small rises, the surrounding floor either rocky or one giant ant hill.
I think I find a spot, but there’s nowhere to sit, or too slanty, too cramped, too many small stones. So on and on I go, kicking around dried mud but never quite satisfied, until just ahead I see two stone benches by a fire ring and a perfect flat spot between two trees.
Sometimes, you just have to follow your intuition.
I set quickly making small prayers to all gods and goddesses that my gear is bug-free. Dinner has been cold-soaking since the waterer and tastes so good from my stone chair. Just as I think my day will finish all alone, Joey walks by.
I tell him about my ordeal and getting a ride north. He tells me he started from exactly there. It must have been a late start, but does go to show how little distance and time is required to separate us hikers.
He also tells me the section near the mountain was absolutely dreadful. The snow is still so deep that by mid-morning, it’s a post-holing nightmare.
i suddenly feel incredibly lucky to have chosen to skip forward and miss that section. Utter frustration is not what I need just now. Maybe another day, but a wee break is in order.
Joey pushes on but I’ll probably see him somewhere along the line. Now, the wind has died and the moon, a waxing crescent, is creating branch shadows on my tent. It was an easy day on dry trail and I feel so good to be back, my body moving well and not one moment of itchy bites.
Please, all omniscient beings and those who look after us on earth, let’s keep it that way.
The tent feels less wet but it’s cold. No frost, just that ”I’ve had quite enough of this” kind of cold. I sit up and scratch my shoulder. I feel several large welts. What’s this? Surely not mosquitos of which I’ve seen exactly zero. You know what, these are not bugs from the outside. These are bugs on the inside. Someone hitched a ride.
I haven’t really looked much at my face out here, but I have bites up and down my left side. They’re swelling up and really hurt. Bed bugs. I had them twice – in Pakistan and in a nice hotel in Milwaukee. They don’t carry disease, but I get an allergic reaction, swell and itch, the bites ooze and then there’s a risk of infection.
I gotta get out of here!
I notice one other tent in the trees as I leave. It’s funny how lonely this hike is because people pass or are behind and you never see them again. I do hear from the Germans, Frauke and Dennis, and love that we connected.
The trail winds around back and forth on long seemingly pointless switchbacks since the slope is so gradual. I laugh remembering the steepness of some of the climbs, like up Mount Lemmon or coming down a rock-filled road to Roosevelt Lake. This has been a hard trail and oftentimes unlovely.
But here must be a bike trail with curves and twists to make a rather ordinary forest more interesting. I move well and fast, not bothering to filter more water since town is close.
I sidle the mountain over a steep canyon and can hear the road below. Cliffs appear and recede and I finally aim for my big fairytale mountain – Humphrey’s Peak one of the San Francisco Peaks, frosted with snow like a pointy cupcake. I look for a place to sit and enjoy the view, but the trail moves down quickly to a kind of saddle and I find myself again in Ponderosa pine and blonde grass.
I pass a red sandstone wall, colorful in this plain landscape. I wonder if I’m done now thru-hiking. I came partly to prove that I could still do this thing, physically, emotionally, mentally. I can. I ‘crushed’ miles and my spirit, while battered from the monotony and lack of views, still appears to be balanced. I whistle, sing, laugh at things. I smile at the two day hikers who pass me – though they appear too busy for a hello.
Hmmm, a harbinger of things to come? I turn left onto the ’urban trail’ and see huge, eroded rock walls in the more interesting Walnut Canyon. Another time, I need to get this bed bug issue under control first.
On and on the trail goes. I hear a dog bark and bikers fly towards me. We laugh together at how badly that dog wants to run. What is there to tell? i walked and I arrived and the scenery never changed until smack dab in front of me are twin bridges for Interstate 40.
Richard guides me to the street I’ll walk to a trail angel’s home. It’s not too hot with a breeze, but the exhaust is choking. I stop at a Whole Foods and finally see my face – swollen and bumpy from bites. At the self-serve I smile at another shopper who frowns and looks away.
But another offers me a ride to the angel’s house. I guess I should have kept my mouth shut about bed bugs. The driver ejects me from the car and tells me she just can’t take any risks. Of course I understand, but when I post on the AZT private Facebook page to ask for help with logistics to manage my situation, I am stunned with the responses. Everything from certainty these welts are nothing but gnat bites to links to website pages that give steps to take to clean my gear followed by I don’t have time/interest/energy/give enough of a damn to help you in taking these steps. Trail ‘angels’ completely ignore me. It is not a happy moment.
I’m going to have to skip forward here and say that I couldn’t stay at the trail angel’s studio apartment so I borrowed garbage bags and sealed all my gear, got a hotel and put every item I could in the washing machine, then washed myself.
I hand washed what can’t be laundered and it is tightly sealed in a garbage bag in the hot sun killing any remaining eggs. I fumbled on washing my quilt and had to walk it down a long, urban road to a repair shop. When I asked for a ride, people were basically mean. But I love to walk, so who needs a ride anyway?
I walked to the doctor, to the pharmacy, to restaurants, to tourist spots and I should have things all bug-free now. A few people (friends of and children of friends) might be lending me a hand to get back on trail tomorrow. I do need a ride forward because time is running out – and more than anything, I need a kindness, I need grounding and help figuring out a set back.
Perhaps I am a pariah. Perhaps I’m not cool enough. Who knows? It has been nearly unbearably lonely and sad here in Flagstaff. And yet, I figured it out and key people from afar like Richard and Jeanne and Valerie and James and many, many others gave me the moral cheering I so craved.
What does someone take from this experience? People can be selfish and utterly useless when you’re really in trouble. Yet is that cause for cynicism or is that cause to choose more carefully who is allowed in? I am on the verge of this nightmare being past tense. I schlepped my stuff and was resourceful enough to manage in the end.
One of my friends is a forgiving but never forgetting kind of guy. I’m sure I’ll cut my bitterness loose, but like him, those who couldn’t be bothered to offer up a change of clothes while I washed everything, or a sandwich while I kneaded the feathers in my down quilt hour after hour at the Loggermat or simply answer a text asking for help – while you’re not in the forefront of my mind, I won’t forget how you behaved.
That being said, I too must decide the person I want to be. A self-absorbed, entitled human or a good samaritan who realizes we’re all in this life together and helping someone helps us too.
The one trail angel, Gary, lives nearby. He couldn’t help much without a car and his place is too tiny. But he’s offered to cook for me now and I am going to let him.
UPDATE: THE HIKE CONTINUES! thanks to the magic of children-of-friends-of-friends. My bedbug bites are better, the gear is fumigated and I feel like a human being again. I am deeply grateful!
Morning comes with bird song and a damp tent and quilt again. I unzip the door to slip out for my morning constitutional and I see I set right next to a Charlie Brown Christmas tree. It’s about how I’m feeling – burning out.
It’s not cold and I pack quickly under gray skies. I’d like to go as far as I can today so I don’t arrive in Flagstaff in the dark. Funny, in all my hikes, I’ve never used my headlamp. I love using all the light of the day and prefer not to hike in the dark unless it’s a special occasion, like Mount Taranaki in New Zealand to watch the sunrise on New Year’s morning.
I start in forest. Snow drifts and mud slow me down, but I need to ease into things. A sign describes the rough life of a logger at the turn of the century. What kept them on the job? Food! They worked such long hours, they burned about 9,000 calories per day.
I know I’m burning calories walking all day. My pants are loose and so is my hip belt.
It looks like Minnesota or Wisconsin in this forest as I dip down into a ravine to cross a rushing stream. I lose the trail for a moment after crossing a deep drift, but find it soon enough. There’s still lots of mud, but nothing like that soul-sucking awfulness of a few days ago. Here, I’m just wet and muddy but move pretty well.
I cross many dirt forest roads, but never see a soul. I wouldn’t mind a beer or a masseuse. It’s so quiet in here, except for the wind rushing through the pine trees, and I’m absolutely alone. That is one of the peculiarities of this trail, how empty it is. Mostly it’s because we’re all headed in the same direction and just a few miles can mean you never see anyone else.
It’s also early in the season for everyone else and that’s emphasized when I come to a campground not yet open. Snow drifts against picnic tables and water runs straight through camp. I walk up a ravine and see some homes that also stand empty, though someone has been here recently to cut up fallen trees, the aroma like Christmas.
It’s lovely in this forest, but I have no views except a vague shape of a large meadow where a lake should be through thick trees. Two mountain jays scrap and cackle, flying from branch to branch in a blur of azure.
Another sign appears telling me about the lumber railroad that came through here. Built in the mid ‘20s by Flagstaff Lumber, it became difficult to maintain the high cost of fuel for a a seven-mile grade. All that remains now is a rock berm and ties scattered about. I swear I hear the ghosts of those hungry lumberjacks.
The forest goes on and on, but I walk well and keep shortening the distance to Flagstaff. A small window through pines opens and I think I see a snow-covered peak – or clouds. It’s almost out of s fairytale.
I’ve walked ten miles and need a break. Ahead I see a sitting log, and someone sitting on it. It’s Waldo! I’m really surprised assuming he’d be way ahead now. He tells me he would have needed to hike until 9 last night to stay on track but needed to stop early. He stepped on what he calls aloe though I believe was yucca, and something is still in his heel. Every step hurts.
I sit down to snack and chat. Waldo is a lovely young man living now in British Columbia. He’s not a fell runner, but did walk the very difficult Pacific Northwest Trail with a much bigger pack. He’s trained himself to carry (and need) very little, and I have to ask if he tolerates cold well. Yes, in fact he enjoys cold showers!
Still, he makes good choices and was in the Mazatzals when the storm hit and managed to stay dry under a tarp he sets with a stick. I tell him I carry a bit more for my 57-year-old self and he thinks I’m joking about my age. Gotta love this kid, especially since he is loving the walking and never wears headphones.
We get up to walk on and he mentions he has a YouTube shoe about ‘the bare necessities.’ I will tune in and maybe make some modifications to my kit. I watch Waldo disappear ahead and feel charged up. Food and sitting help, but so does human interaction and with someone so comfortable in his skin and in these surroundings.
I move slower but well and begin to touch on that delicious feeling I have when walking. This trail has felt like such hard work and many long hours of monotony before being rewarded with views. I try hard to see all the little things around me and to enjoy the simplicity of being outdoors with the wind and birdsong, but it has been a challenge.
As I mull this over, it slowly dawns on me that the trail is changing dramatically. It’s drying up and my 100 feet of joy is just about all joy. And yet, I also just assumed I’d have creeks running all around me today and now there is no sign of snow.
I hear cars – many purposely without mufflers – and realize I’ll soon cross busy Lake Mary Road. A trail angel might have left water, but what’s this? A bridge over Walnut Creek which is now a flooded lake. I’m saved!
It’s time for lunch anyway so I filter a liter while sitting against my pack against a tree and eat a small feast of cheese, fish, dried fruit and a bar. It’s another five miles+ to water and I think I should be all right with a liter.
I cross the road and I swear a pickup speeds up. The trail heads up through oak forest placing me above Upper Lake Mary, but views are not on today’s agenda. Instead, I’m back on a flat mesa of dry blond grass and sparse trees walking along a dusty, rock-strewn forest road. There’s nothing to say but that this is a long, uninspired walk.
Still, the wind is blowing and all the mud is dry. I can see squishy footprints from a hiker I feel sorry for just nos because I know precisely how awful that sticky mud walk is. So I’m cool and moving well and my fairytale mountain appears over an enormous dried out tank. It’s those little things that tip this walk toward a happy place.
Though I am totally exposed to the sun and suck down water fast. I need to find a tank with water soon. My map app ‘Far Out’ has recent comments that Horse Lake too is completely dry, but I spy some glistening in the sun and head over on dry mud to filter a liter. It’s a bit brown but tastes delicious.
I carry my entire operation through a fence and into shade and guzzle a liter and save another to carry to camp and continue on feeling much better. Soon, the trail sends me to the edge of Anderson Mesa and I finally get s view of Upper Lake Mary fed by Walnut Creek where I had lunch.
It’s wild up here seeing so much forest, the fairytale mountain and lake. The trail cuts around Lowell Observatory’s Navy Precision Optical Interferometer. It’s one of the most precise telescopes in the world that can separate distant stars that normally appear as one clump though all I see are an array of long white tubes.
Nearby is Prime Lake and a sign tells me it was created around one to five million years ago when underground voids collapsed making surface depressions that were sealed by clay deposits. Some of those deposits are on the bottom of my shoe.
The important big today is that this is a wetland visited by 100 different bird species. Even when dry, this collapsed void is a very important component of ecosystem. Birds are singing, quacking, and hooting and I walk on ready to find a site.
I come to a road and meet a couple with a van sitting by a fire. Of course I ask if they might sell me a beer and Lindsay gives me the good stuff – a super hoppy IPA. Ryan asks if I know the trail ahead. When I say no, he gives me a detailed description of where to go.
I follow his suggestion, across a meadow, down through a lovely oak forest, up a road next to another protected wetland and up to the Arizona Trail sign. Right here, under pines, is a flat grassy area awaiting the alicoop.
How did he know? And just the exact amount of distance I wanted to go so I’d still have daylight to dry the tent and bag, have dinner, change and crawl in. And now the stars are out, the ones that can be seen as distinct objects by the observatory up the hill. And my bird friends are quieted down too. Only the wind above in the pines sings me to sleep.
Well, my brilliant idea to use my ground cloth like a blanket and stay dry failed miserably. I’m dry under the quilt, but condensation built up underneath the ground cloth. Not as wet as yesterday, and nothing frozen this morning.
I pack up and notice the sticky mud adhering like glue to my stakes. I’m here in prime time. It’ll all be gone in a few weeks.
I decide to give a small bit of road a try and copy Snack. There’s still a raging torrent of muddy water flowing at me, but as she pointed out, there’s more choice where to walk.
It really has gotten more beautiful, tall ponderosa more tightly packed in, meadows and lichen-covered rock. The sun cuts at an angle and everything has a warm glow, even if covered in frost. The birds sing with gusto from every tree. I am in a much better space on this glorious morning.
I pass a mole tunnel revealed under melted snow. I still have drifts to cross and my feet crunch the crusty top. Other feet have been on this road. It’s definitely easier walking than the trail. I remember a wise person telling me to enjoy good things while they last. Nothing lasts forever, but that goes for bad things too, and the good will return.
I reach a tank and see Joey high up on its bank in the sun. I decide to leave him to his reverie as the trail moves away. I find a stump to sit on at a sunny spot a little further on where I collect water from the run off spilling out of Maxie Tank. The only major benefit for us hikers is water is plentiful to collect.
Joey catches me in the forest crossing a drift – thank the goddess I can simply place my feet in someone else’s posthole. I assume he’ll blast by, but either he slows down or I’m moving fast enough and we walk together through the forest chatting.
It’s funny that I prefer to hike alone and yet with a good conversationalist, hiking with a friend is the best. We talk about yesterday and he tells me he also struggled but just set his mind to taking things as they come. We talk about long hikes and how it might be a bit too much, as well as speed and how silly it can be to always go fast.
I move happily along, a different person from yesterday. It’s prettier and not quite so horrible, even if we come across a few nasty spots.
Our conversation takes us all the way to Lake Mary Road where a camper is parked right at our cross. Of course I ask if they might have a beer they can sell me and Billy pops in the back to produce two. ‘Ballpark Beer’ at 10 am, nothing goes down smoother for a thru-hiker.
Billy tells us this land used to be in his family but is now a nature preserve. It’s loud with frogs and birds and we walk on a raised dirt road, moving easily as the beer takes effect. I tell Joey about the amazing whisky tasting I had in Scotland after hiking to Cape Wrath. He tells me he quit smoking after losing his pack on the trail.
And just like that, we miss our turn and take the wrong road. Checking the map we see we can parallel then join the trail if we just cross this meadow. And just like being in Scotland, it’s jumping from one grassy tussock to the next to avoid bog, sometimes splashing straight through water. I find it the most fun all day.
It’s a little over a mile on relatively decent if spongy surface that takes us to private property. We need to meet another side road inside a locked gate and figure with all this snow, the place has got to be empty.
Joey throws over his pack, but me? Well I may have new hips and getting a bit creaky, but I’m still a good climber and pop right over.
This side road is covered in water and mud and we miss the trail, needing to search in the woods to find it. Once on, Joey starts moving fast. It’s only a few miles to a junction with a resort and he’s skipping it to get home faster.
I lose him on the uphill, so just take my time on the final bits before heading to civilization. Just before the turn, I meet a couple coming in with their dog. Stamps walked the AZT last year but skipped this section. I tell her and Isaac the mud is epic, but they’ve planned a leisurely six days and will likely have a better time of it, though I wonder about squat little Bella. They tell me this is her training hike. At least it’s pretty flat!
I hit the turn to Mormon Lake, a natural body of water that grows and shrinks over time. It’s the home of the Zane Grey museum as well as camping and a small store. The restaurant opened for the season yesterday and I want a steak.
It’s only a mile down, but as if a reprise, all things return – deep postholed snow drifts, water-as-trail, sticky mud and rocks the size of basketballs. As if that’s not enough, one overgrown thorny patch is thrown in for good measure.
The water’s a puddle, but the place is hopping. I buy some food and have a huge meal then decide to skip camping with loud car campers and head back up my reprise trail in reverse to camp at the junction.
I find a gorgeous spot still in sunshine, on top of pine needles and next to a stream. Just as I begin to set, a young man carrying the smallest backpack I’ve ever seen with no waistbelt comes down the trail. He’s not even using walking sticks and is about as minimalist as they come.
Waldo is English and, in spite of his extra, hyper, ultra light gear, is relaxed and easy going. He thought nothing of the mud in the last section and after I snap his picture, saunters on hoping to get to Flagstaff tomorrow. Perhaps he’s a fell runner and used to extremes – England is very wet, as we all know. But how can he traverse this countryside and stay safe with so little?
As for me, I’ve gone as ‘ultra-light’ as I dare – a single-wall, trekking-pole style tent; an ultralight quilt and pad (the pillow is a luxury); and no cooking stove or fuel. Still, I take flipflops and a change of clothes for bed. I have a large battery to charge my phone because I can write every day and take thousands of pictures. I have a sit pad and a bag of wet wipes, but other than that, not much else. Doesn’t sound over-the-top, does it? Yet it all adds up and would never fit in that bookbag-sized pack.
Birds hoot and a duck quacks loudly as he flies over the meadow. I’m cuddle in as it goes quiet except for the gurgling stream. I’m warm and cozy and so grateful for a fun day walking with a friend, even if we did take a wrong turn, a great meal at a funky place and my good health to do this.
I’m warm all night, but the tent fills with moisture – even my quilt is sopping wet on top. Fortunately, it doesn’t penetrate and I stay dry. Thinking I’m helping the situation, I open my door, but that only makes the moisture freeze solid.
As you can imagine, I’m slow to get up, unsure how to manage the situation. I could wait for the sun, but that might take hours to reach me past the trees.
I fuss around inside, eating, taping my toes and getting dressed. While I do, the residents accompany the routine – a pack of coyotes yip and howl, an owl hoots, turkeys gobble and a woodpecker finds just the right hollow spot to hammer.
There’s really no choice but to pack and start moving. It’s absolutely freezing stuffing the tent, bits of ice come off in shavings. The quilt feels heavy, but I know I’ll dry them soon enough. The sky is crystal clear and the sun should be hot.
But the worst is yet to come. My sneakers are frozen solid. There was no way to avoid getting them wet yesterday and they never fully dried. My socks are solid too, and I bend them to fit on my feet. Ice cold.
Getting my feet in the shoes is a trick. I open them up as far as they’ll go and coax them into shape, then carefully stuff my feet in. The heel does not want to go, but finally pops in. They do not feel good, painfully cold, but once I move, I warm up quickly.
I walk about a half mile or so and find Joey next to a deep run off. He knew everything would get wet, so didn’t bother with a tent. He holds up a bottle of greenish water and tells me the run off didn’t filter so well.
I move along at a good clip, following seasonal rivers of run off and carefully crossing so as not to get any icier. I come to one of the beautiful iron Arizona Trail gates and think maybe I can hang things here, but it’s far too muddy. Ahead is a tree that’s dry beneath and I pull out the wet gear.
As I hang the tent on branches, I notice something inside that looks like moth balls. Could it be toilet paper? No, it’s a snowball! All the ice squished together inside while the tent was packed away.
I release it and give the tent a few twists to catch the sun. It doesn’t take long for everything to get crispy dry. I pack it away and step back on trail right into epic mud.
Is this some kind of April Fool’s prank? The mud is sticky and slippery, adhering to my shoes and picking up grass along the way. The added weight plus the difficulty of simply stepping through is unbelievably frustrating.
And it’s not as if I can just step off trail. There is rocky with deep grass hiding cactus. It’s often just as flooded as the trail itself. My sticks accumulate mud which weighs them down and I constantly bang them to release a mud puck.
This is torture and I absolutely hate it. It’s not as though there’s anything making all this work worth it. The landscape is grass, trees, sky and clouds on repeat – no variation, no views. Well, some variation in fire damaged trees.
It’s getting warm now with the sun brilliant and I plod along, cursing, whining, crying. Someone has put a cow’s skull on a log as a kind of greeter and that’s just about how I feel right now, dead.
I slog on mad at the trail, mad at the mud, mad at nature. When I pass a giant tank, frogs sing loudly. Shorebirds take off as one in silver flight.
The fact is I’m too early. Some hikers went home and plan to return in a few weeks when it’s all dried up. That’s not exactly convenient for me. So I press on, heavy sneakers and tears. This awfulness is doing me in and I’m losing my mind. I am nowhere near the bad ass I think I am. Suppose I can’t walk out of here?
I come to Foot in Tree Tank where I’d planned to filter more water. There’s a grassy bit in shade. Trees and the derp blue sky are reflected in its muddy surface. One frog clicks away on the far shore. It’s a lovely place to sit down and take a pause from the mud.
I filter a half liter, then use it to backflush my filter watching brown water course out. When I filter again, it moves fast and clear.
Joey walks by and I tell him I can barely stand it. He agrees this id oppressive but has little advice then to keep moving and bit by bit, it will be behind me.
As he shuffles on and I pack up I realize no one’s going to get me out of here but me on my own two legs.
That’s when I decide to play a game. You can do anything for just one hour. So I set my alarm and decide I will move through whatever is here for that 60 minute span, then sit down and have a snack.
The clock ticks down as I throw on my pack and push back into it. A feeling of control takes over. I certainly can’t control the path but I have power over me – as I step into a particularly awful section that slows my step to a crawl and fills my shoe with another sole.
I spend much of that hour praying for rocks.
It’s funny how I experience the stages of grief. You know, anger, sadness, fear, bargaining, etc. All feelings at once in a jumble of totally out of control. A plan, even if I absolutely hate it, keeps me going when that is exactly what I have to do.
I hit a dry patch and can move normally. “One hundred feet of joy!” I say, singing Alfred Burt’s ‘Joy, joy, joy!’ It doesn’t last long, but enough to get a groove in my movement through charred trees, over blowdowns and through a swampy area, complimenting myself on good technique keeping my shoes dry and not become frozen solid again.
My first break I sit on a piece of pumice next to charred and exfoliated trunks. I think of the trials on this hike, this 40 days in the desert. I thought they’d be more psychological than physical.
I set the timer again and remember to rejoice, not worry and ask for help. I seem to be getting a few more feet of joy with horribleness mixed in. My pace quickens and I begin to develop a kind of skill for avoiding the worst of it. The funny thing about this game is that it focuses me down to this hour – not tonight’s camping, not to tomorrow’s town, not to the end. When my mind begins to question if this wet bog of a trail continues all the way to Utah, I risk panicking instead of making the step I’m taking the priority.
Truth is, I never ever have to do this again, and knowing that helps.
The day is absolutely gorgeous, clear, deep blue sky up here at 7,500 feet, a few clouds perfectly created like a child’s drawing and a cool breeze. When I take my break, I realize just how lovely it is.
The trouble is, it’s too far to walk. I always have to think about ‘getting there,’ and it spoils some of the enjoyment. It’s definitely dryer as I fly along through forests on a pine needle carpet. Maybe it stays this way for a while?
No such luck. On my third hour, the trail is a stream with snowdrifts to crawl over. I leave muddy footprints before plunging back into a soupy stickiness. I follow what looks to be a trail and suddenly hear, “Blissful!”
It’s Snack way back at an intersection I missed. Yes, this mud can make a person lose their mind. K haven’t seen her all day and she tells me she walks the road instead. It mostly parallels the trail and, while still muddy, is wide enough to offer options. Smart girl!
I sit down and tell her I’ve been breaking every hour, then start to cry. It isn’t even pretty! She laughs, not at me, but with me and absurdity of our being there. Funny, it helps.
We both want to camp beyond the next water. I take the trail and she, the road. I have a few bits to negotiate, but mostly I move well coming to an enormous meadow almost like Tuolumne in Yosemite without the mountains.
Water is rushing in a stream and I sit to collect it, plus add some to my noodles to soak for dinner. The road is much further and she arrives as I pack up. I tell her I’d like to make 20 miles today so tomorrow is manageable and she promises to look for my tent.
What happens next can only be explained by the mysterious surprises that await us – the trail becomes beautiful. All the running water and large trees reminds me of Scotland, I’m certainly damp and muddy enough for it.
The trail heads up a small canyon with a lovely creek stair stepping down. This wood is gnarly with lichen-covered rock. Marsh marigolds and spring beauty carpet the forest floor. I do hit water and mud, but also feet-of-joy and sing them out when they come.
As the terrain begins to slant down, I hear frogs clicking in a tank. I’d love to hear that all night. I hop across more creeks and just as the trail turns, I see to my right a flat grassy area with two creeks feeding around a small island, one which has three waterfalls.
I set in grass and organize dinner. I wash my muddy feet in ice cold rushing water and watch the clouds turn pink beyond tall ponderosa.
Was it worth it for this? The point would have been made in an hour rather an entire day, but I got here in the end, a place full of natural sound and fresh, cold air and a million stars. My reward, a surprise awaiting my tired, battered body.
And perhaps just enough to help me get through whatever trials await me tomorrow.