They say that the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. The Arizona Trail weighs in at 800 miles...and also started with a single step away from the Utah Border at 4:17pm October 7th, 2016.
The Arizona Trail is one of 11 National Scenic Trails in this country comprising over 18,000 miles of trails. These routes showcase some of the most incredible scenery that our nation has to offer. The Arizona Trail, designated a National Scenic Trail in 2009, shows off some of the best desert wilderness you can imagine.
The Fastest Known Time (FKT) goal wasn’t my foremost concern when planning this endeavor. Mainly I wanted to see the variety of terrain Arizona has to offer and explore new places. However, the additional limitations and challenges of attempting a Self-Supported FKT intrigued me and I decided to follow the parameters of a self-supported attempt including walking into and out of my resupply locations.
I flew into Phoenix and got a ride to the Utah border on October 7th with two other hikers: Phoenix Rising and Jellybean. It was a long drive, but the good company helped take my mind off of the nervousness. We stopped at the Highway 89A crossing where I cached a couple gallons of water for myself. It was several more hours of driving until we reached the start of the trail at the Arizona-Utah state line.
Not wanting to hang out in a place without water I decided to start my hike upon arrival: 4:17 pm on October 7th. It was an indicator of how time would be so erratic on this FKT in comparison to others.
The trail climbed up and away from the Utah border and soon I was walking through sagebrush flats and washes. The trail was well marked and as darkness fell I enjoyed the cool air and sound of coyotes. Around 14 or 15 miles in I decided to call it good and made camp under a juniper. It was quite brisk and I realized that my hot weather gear might be barely adequate for the first 300 miles of trail.
The next day I was up at 4 and walking by 4:45. Again I danced with coyotes in the pre-dawn light. As the trail unfolded I was surprised by how little elevation gain and loss there was. Miles and miles of mostly flat pine forest. I crossed through the recently reopened prescribed burn area and noted many smoldering stumps and blackened soil. It was interesting to see. I soon reached Highway 89A at 9:30am to find that one of my water gallons had been taken. Luckily, I’d squirrelled them in two locations and the other one was untampered with. This seems to be a growing problem along the AZT.
The rest of the morning was pleasant hiking through the forest and I noted evergrowing clouds in the direction of the Grand Canyon. They were dark and as a midwesterner I was keenly aware that they were highly suggestive of snow. Around 1pm thunder began to boom and shortly thereafter a gentle, albeit cold, rain began. This continued for several hours.
I had been prepared for inclement weather north of the Grand Canyon, however this far surpassed what I’d had in mind. I ran into a herd of cows, a few of the mothers stood their ground between me and their calves. I bushwhacked around them bitching about the rain and the tangle of plants I had to go through. Despite wearing my lightweight rain jacket I still got soaked. The rain grew harder, the temperature dropped, the wind picked up.
I saw an unusual cloud billow/formation ahead of me as I descended from the higher plateau I’d been on. I recognized it as a micro burst type and fully anticipated getting hammered. Sure enough, I entered a meadowy area and got slammed with hail. This quickly turned to snow which led to several inches of slushy snow. This accumulation continued and soon my feet were also soaked with cold water. I had a difficult time staying on the trail since the tread was completely blanketed.
I suffer from Reynaud’s Syndrome and my hands lost all ability to function. I hiked as fast as I could manage in an attempt to raise my body temperature. However, I knew that in reality I was going to plummet into hypothermia very soon if the weather didn’t relent. I couldn’t find any protected, dry area to set up my tent, and given that I couldn’t use my hands I didn’t know how I would be able to do so anyway.
Abruptly the precipitation stopped as I followed the trail over a small divide and dropped into a large meadow. The temperature didn’t warm and the wind didn’t relent. A few moments later I woke up face down in the slush. I am not sure why I passed out, whether it was hypothermia or low blood sugar from my fast paced hiking without food. Regardless, I clambered to my feet and tried to resume walking. I fell down again. And again. The third time I crouched there on my hands and knees as nausea and dizziness washed over me. My head was spinning and I was certain that if I stood up again I would lose consciousness. 100 yards away I could see a large pine tree at the edge of the meadow. It’s spreading crown protected a large area from the snowfall. I knew I had to get there to set up camp and get warm. I fumbled a snack out of my pocket and ripped it open with my teeth. I swallowed and waited a few minutes. If I had to crawl on my hands and knees I’d do it. I set my mind to think only of getting to that tree no matter what it took.
Cautiously I got to my feet. I stood there swaying and leaning heavily on my trekking poles. I took one step and then another. It was a slow 10 minute shuffle to the tree supporting much of my weight on the poles.
Once I arrived I dropped my pack and using my defunct hands and teeth barely managed to get my tent set up rather haphazardly. I crawled inside verbally coaching myself through each step of removing wet clothes and shoes and getting into my sleeping bag. I sat there for 45 minutes shivering violently. I looked at my phone for the time to see that it was only 5 pm. It had taken me nearly an hour to walk 100 yds, set up my tent, and warm myself enough to use my hands again.
I ate dinner and collapsed into sleep shortly after 6.
I woke up at 9:30 and laughed ironically that typically this is when I’d be stopping for the night. I briefly thought about starting hiking then, but the bite of the cold air on my face when I poked it out of my bag drove me back inside. My alarm went off at 4 am and I packed up, hiking out into a frosty world.
It was damn cold and I wore my sleeping bag wrapped around my shoulders with my water filter tucked close to my body for hours. The trail was easy walking and well marked across frosted meadows and cold forests. The sky was clear and full of stars. I heard elk bugling and coyotes yipping. I finally reached the East Rim view and basked in the sun for a few brief minutes. I put away my sleeping bag, but didn’t remove my other layers. I was dipping in and out of forest and the air was still very cold when not in direct sunlight.
I realized I still had a lot of water on my back which I had now been carrying for nearly 70 miles. I hadn’t been drinking much of anything in the cold. I yearned to drop into the Grand Canyon where I knew it’d be 20 or 30 degrees warmer. The trail continued to wind through unremarkable forested terrain. I finally reached the North Kaibab Trailhead around 1:30 pm after covering 30 miles. I knew I’d have a long ways to go still.
I drank water at the spring there, trying to force hydrate. My body was going to be in for a rude awakening as I dropped in elevation. I wrote what I had been thinking about for many days with regard to my intention for the AZT. I was still on the fence about whether I was committed mentally to doing what it would take to set the FKT.
I stand on the rim of a wide and glorious canyon and stare across the vast rainbow.
Will I walk back in time yet again? Traverse the landscapes that first enthralled me, challenged me, took me from fear into wonder?
Somehow I am 20 years old again, standing here with bleeding feet wrapped in duct tape. I'd walked from South Rim to North. My cheap shoes from Wal-Mart had disintegrated by Phantom Ranch 7 miles into the hike...
But, I have never, ever known the meaning of Give Up.
I was dizzy, dehydrated, depleted, tired, sore, bleeding, and...triumphant.
I had accomplished that which I had felt was impossible only 2 months before. I'd gone from someone who had never hiked a mile in her life to one in love with the movement of her body across a landscape. I had gone from overweight and floundering on the trail to standing at the end of a 21 mile crossing of the Grand Canyon.
It was the beginning.
Anish might not have been born until Carter Gap on the Appalachian trail, but her genesis happened here. In Arizona, beneath cloudless skies, in a stark land where water is precious and Mother Nature harbors no sympathy.
So now I wonder...
What does one do when they have answered all their questions? Faced all their fears? When you've achieved more than you even set out to do?
My answer is to return.
I return to the land where I began. Where I first felt the pangs of desire for the wild places. Where I fell uncontrollably in love with nature and moving through it.
I return to stand in the places where I felt most challenged. Where I learned through trial and error how to hike.
I return to where I felt my grip on the ideals set before me my entire life loosen.
I return to where I realized that I did not want to become anything aside from a vagabond.
I return to the memories of transformation that still bring me strength when I am challenged.
I return to where I was scared of the challenges, the changes in myself, and the future that was now tremendously uncertain.
I stand there beside my 20 year old self and I take her hand. I whisper, "Stay strong. Be brave. The best is yet to come."
I return to walk. To walk in the only way I know how. Passionately, joyously, fervently...madly in love with every mile I cover. I return to walk across the land that captured my heart and has never let it go.
I descended quickly. I wanted to make up as much time as possible because I knew full well what the climb up the South Kaibab would be like. I knew I had a stupid grin on my face, but I was so happy that it was impossible to hide. More than once people hiking the opposite way remarked on my dress, my happiness, or my stride. I reached Manzanita rest area and refilled my water. I chatted briefly with a ranger there. Then I hustled across the relatively flat inner gorge, leapfrogging with a man who was doing R2R2R over two days. I reached Phantom Ranch shortly after him and just before dark. Perfect timing. Once again I refilled my water and headed for the chocolately brown Colorado River.
I passed through the mule bridge tunnel and climbed up to the River Trail junction. The moon was rising and deep dusk had set in. With the thought of rattlesnakes on my mind I clicked on my headlamp. I felt rather giddy at the idea of ascending nearly 5,000ft back to the rim in the dark.
I fell into an even pace that I could sustain even for several hours of relentless climbing. Along the way I saw several deer, including a large buck resting alongside the trail. I encountered my first tarantula of the trip and with only 1 mile to the South Kaibab Trailhead, a herd of Bighorn Sheep. (At first I only saw the eyes of one and was terrified that it might have been a lion!)
I reached the rim at 8:30pm-Not bad! I got water and wandered around a bit, trying to figure out exactly where the trail went. It didn’t make sense to me that it used the road instead of the Rim Trail, then veered onto the Rim Trail, then veered off under the power lines, but I gave up trying to analyze it and simply followed the red line and blue dot on my Guthook Hikes app.
I camped in the outskirts of the Mather Campground and woke up early to charge my phone in the bathhouse. I huddled there as long as I could before my stomach demanded food. I unplugged and walked to Market Village and into my former place of employment: Yavapai Lodge at 7:45 am.
I was taken aback by the remodeling. The place had been pretty dumpy when I worked there 15 years before. 15 years. It dawned on me that I certainly wasn’t a 20 year old kid anymore. I was only going to buy some eggs and bacon, but, there was a buffet. And quite honestly, what hiker can resist a buffet, especially after a 52 mile day?!
Full to the brim I walked over to the store. I had completely and utterly forgotten about Columbus Day when I’d mailed my resupply box to the Post Office next door. I had spent several hours the day before berating myself for that, but, in the end, 1 box snafu in thousands of miles of hiking wasn’t bad odds. Not to mention the store caters to hikers and I had no problem finding what I needed. It was just expensive.
So, I decided that rather than replacing everything that I’d lost in my box, I would just buy enough to get me to Flagstaff. There I’d walk the 3.6 miles r/t to a Safeway and buy enough to get me to Pine. I’d rather spend less money and walk a few more miles than drop over a hundred in a tourist store.
I hit the paved bike path by 9 and cruised along, enjoying the pleasant temperatures and sunny forest. There was no one around and it was quiet. A movement at the corner of my eye made me turn to see three furry behinds hightailing it through the trees. I stopped and squinted…”What the??” They were too large to be boar (were there even boar here?) but too small to be bears. But, they must be bears. Did the South Rim have bears? A quick Google search revealed that there were bears in the Kaibab indeed, but that sightings were rare. I felt blessed.
Just outside Tusayan the nice bike path/trail ended and deposited me at the opening of a culvert under the highway. Just inside was a lumpy sleeping bag. I tentatively peered at it as I inched closer...no one inside, Thank God! I crossed under the road and commenced to following the tapeworm trail through the woods for an interminable amount of time. Utilizing old roads the trail took hairpins and right angles, going north then south, then east and west in a confusing maze. I religiously followed markers trusting that eventually I’d end up at the Grandview Lookout Tower.
Along the way I met a couple hiking from Flagstaff north. I excitedly engaged them in conversation and asked about water. They gave me the name of several tanks which they’d utilized which was valuable information. I shared with them what knowledge I had of the trail northward, including a warning about the unstable weather on the Kaibab Plateau north of the Grand Canyon.
I reached the Grandview Lookout tower in the late afternoon and was happy to have one last glance back at the outskirts of the Grand Canyon before turning eastward and heading back into forestland. A few hours later I caught a faint whiff of smoke. Shortly thereafter I met Sequoia and his two dogs in their camp. He was amiable and invited me to join him at his fire for dinner. I was sorely tempted and again I felt my indecisiveness about whether I was serious about the record waiver. In the end, I only had enough water to make it to Russell Tank and so that swayed me to say farewell and hike on into the night.
There were many elk bugling throughout the forest. I vaguely wondered if they ever attacked humans in a fit of rut rage. I decided it was best to not think about that and tried to power through the miles in order to stay warm. I found a cache at the first Russell Tank/road crossing and filled up. It tasted plastic-y. I continued another 4 miles or so to a nice ponderosa on the edge of a sage flat. I set up camp and went to sleep.
In the morning I was shocked to discover that somehow the knot I’d put in my hydration hose to keep the water from leaking after I removed the inline filter (I’d been sleeping with my filter inside my bag to keep it from freezing) had somehow come undone. At least a liter of precious water had leaked out and made a pool at the foot of my tent. My backpack (which I keep under my feet) was soaked. Irritated I checked the water report and saw that I was only about 10 miles from reliable Lockwood Tank that the couple and Sequoia had both assured me was full of water. I tried to let the incident go and be thankful instead that my sleeping bag had not gotten wet.
I saw myriad shooting stars in the pre-dawn and many elk bugled alongside me. Coyotes were ever present. All in all it was a delightful several hours. I reached the Lockwood Tank at 8 am. I despaired to see that it was simply a huge, earthen depression filled with muddy water and algae. Cows at work. So, while there was water there, I was definitely not going to use it. I evaluated the 2 liters I had remaining and decided I could walk the 18 miles to Cedar Ranch Trailhead on it. I didn’t realize that the nature of the trail was about to change.
The next 18 miles were primarily a hot, exposed roadwalk straight into the sun. My phone was nearly dead (issues with my solar charger) so I finally just strapped the solar charger to my sternum strap and watched the phone closely. It charged rapidly thankfully. I rationed water. As I closed in on the trailhead I saw a car and several folks sitting outside...some under chrome umbrellas. Thru-hikers!!
It was indeed thru-hikers and two buddies had driven up from Flagstaff. As I walked up one asked if I wanted water. Hell yes I did! They handed me my own gallon and I was blissfully gulping that down, making Nuun, and refilling my water bladder while trying to chat with the three thru-hikers as well. We took a group photo and the guys in the car drove off. I said my farewells to the other thru’s (thinking they would probably be the only ones I’d see on this seemingly abandoned trail) and headed off.
A few miles later I ran into two men elk hunting. They asked me about the trail and how long it had taken me to walk there. One man said he and his wife were thinking about hiking it. I wondered if I should clarify my intent since he seemed to be very interested in the time commitment and was gauging it off of my answers, but I decided to let sleeping dogs lie and instead asked them how far south the elk went and weather I should be wearing orange. They assured me that I was bright enough and that the elk hunting didn’t go past the East Verde, so I pushed onward.
Shortly after dark I saw eyes glowering at me from in the tall grass. I yelled and waved my poles until it ran away. Was it a lion? I’m still not sure.
I made camp beneath yet another ponderosa pine that night, it was cold and I snuggled down into my sleeping bag and tried to stay warm.
By the time I reached Alfa Fia Tank in the early morning I was thawed enough to take a look at my water supplies. I was slightly worried about how little I’d been drinking on the hike so far, yet, despite the aridity of the air, it had been cold. So it made sense. I bypassed the tank opting instead to push into town.
It proved to be a good choice as the trail was pleasant and well graded, winding around Mt. Humphey’s. I reached the turnoff for the resupply route which walks directly through the town of Flagstaff and the Equestrian Bypass. I had a choice to make about which official route to follow. I wasn’t able to establish which way the previous record holder had gone, but I did know that Michael Versteeg (who was attempting a supported record at the same time I was on trail) as well as Ras and Kathy Vaughn (first yo-yo of the AZT) had taken the Equestrian Bypass route. So, I decided to match my effort to those since I was still ostensibly attempting an FKT of my own. This would mean adding the mileage to my hike for resupply, but I felt good about the decision.
While I was standing at the sign deliberating a gentleman on a mountain bike rode up. We had a great conversation about the need for nature in our screen laden lives as well as a recent history of the wildfires and their impact on the area. From there the trail shifted character again, dropping to a trailhead and then winding around on the drier, hotter side of the mountains. I ran out of water by the time I popped out at the highway and crossed under the culvert.
The fence line was down, likely from many folks hopping it to reach the sidewalk above and I followed suit. Luckily the 1.8 miles to Safeway were relatively flat and I made short work of them. Inside I wandered around, the typical deer in the headlights feeling of so many options after days on trail. It didn’t help that I was both hungry and thirsty. About halfway through my wander I heard a voice at my side ask, “Excuse me, but are you Anish?” I turned to see a man that looked familiar to me standing there. But the accent had been decidedly Kiwi. I was confused.
“Oh! I thought that was you! I’m a friend of Mike Brown’s, Alan. I met you at RunFest in Wellington in February.”
We chatted briefly, although I must say I probably made no sense being so out of it. We said goodbye and I threw a few more things in my cart. I checked out and went to the tables near the in-store Starbucks. I plugged in my phone while I devoured food. I was surprised how hungry I felt. I blamed it on the junk I’d been eating since I’d missed my carefully planned box of nourishing whole foods. Pringles and M&M’s are not my body’s ideal fuel, that’s for sure.
I repackaged my resupply, drank a cup of coffee, and packed up. I hightailed it back to the trail and logged another 15 miles before bed. In the final mile or two I kept seeing a nice looking campsite, only to startle a skunk. 3 times in a row! Finally I said to hell with it and crawled under a tree. I hadn’t seen a skunk for about 5 minutes and I figured they weren’t likely to chew into my tent. As I drifted off to sleep I thought I heard a goose fly over. Auditory hallucinations??
The next morning I descended and ascended a couple of very cold canyons before climbing up onto an enormous mesa. I passed by the intersection of the resupply route just after daybreak, and once on the mesa encountered several wetlands. Perhaps I hadn’t been imagining the goose?
The trail essentially followed dirt roads flat for a seemingly endless amount of miles. It was getting rather boring actually. They were also getting less well marked which left me wandering around a bit here and there following my Guthook App in order to find where I was supposed to go. I met 3 men from Tucson heading north, doing a section from the Mogollon Rim to Flagstaff. We chatted a bit and they assured me that my planned water source, Navajo Spring, was dry, but that there was water in the Double Springs Campground creek.
I worried about it all afternoon as I hiked, finally reaching Double Springs in the late afternoon. The creek literally ran through a nearly deserted front country campground. I tried not to think of all the contaminants that probably drained into the cloudy water. Ugh. I would never, ever take water from a place like this. Except now. On this trail. Where water was scarce and good water even scarcer. I came to terms with the fact that I am quite prissy about my drinking water.
I scooped water into one of my bladders and just as I finished filling it I noticed what appeared to be an odd leaf in the flow. I looked closer and realized it was a bandaid.
OMG! My mind raced with all the viruses and nasty human germs that were potentially multiplying in the water I intended to DRINK! Fuck. I had an utter and complete meltdown. I stood there and sobbed. I wanted to quit this trail with it’s fucked up water sources right then and there.
A small rational voice in my head told me I was overreacting, that I had both chlorine AND a filter, but I couldn’t stop. I just bawled. Finally I pulled it together, put chlorine in and started hiking. A little over an hour later I reached the turn off for Navajo Spring. A man was coming up the side trail and I inquired whether the spring had water. He told me the lower cement tank had a puddle in it.
Not convinced I walked the .1 over to the spring area. The water report said to go behind a concrete building to a piped spring. No one seemed to be mentioning it, so I decided to check it out. I bypassed the cement troughs and walked behind the structure. I heard a familiar sound and turned to see crystal clear, cold water flowing from a galvanized pipe.
I almost cried again I was so happy! I dumped the band-aid water on the ground, rinsed the bladder in the spring water and then buried it in the bottom of my pack never to be used unless there were dire circumstances. I then filled my other two bladders and happily headed out despite the gallon of water on my back.
Yet again I struggled to find the motivation to truly push myself. Once I hit the 43-45 mile range I was done for the day. I pondered this as I walked through the early morning the next day. I had known going into this hike that I was likely not recovered fully mentally from the AT FKT the year before and that that would probably hinder my ability to truly push myself. So far, despite lugging a heavy water laden pack 45 miles a day I had been sleeping full nights and rather enjoying myself. It was like vacation. FKT-lite. I laughed a bit at the thought. I passed through the Bargaman Tank enclosure stirring up a full on cow stampede. Then I struggled with the cowboy gate for a while. I never did get the knot right on the rope tie. Oh well. It was secure against cows anyway.
My aim was to reach the Blue Ridge Ranger Station by mid-afternoon. It was .8 off of the trail along the highway, but I felt traumatized enough by the band-aid water to be willing to go extra distance for clean water. About 2 miles beforehand I talking to myself about how I needed to drink a lot of water there when I realized there was someone sitting on the trail in front of me. A woman named Hustler who was also Southbounding. It was so nice to commiserate with someone about the water on the trail and the overall experience. I was realizing how much I missed people on a thru-hike! Shortly after that I ran into 3 men checking out a section. We chatted for a while and I answered their questions about the section I’d just hiked. They were older and all in cowboy hats. “Locals as they say.” said one of them. Indeed.
I nearly squealed with joy at the sight of the water spigot outside the ranger station. A sign said “Limit 10 gallons.” I wondered briefly how many gallons would go into me ducking myself in the flow for a good 2-3 minutes to wash off the dirt, sweat, sunscreen and cool down. I decided instead to chug 2 liters, wash my socks, and pack out a gallon. As I was leaving a woman came out of the building. I thanked her for the water and tentatively asked if she would be willing to throw out my trash. She graciously said yes and offered me an alternative route back to the trail that would eliminate the almost mile on the busy highway. I listened to her instructions, but when I realized I’d miss nearly half a mile I thanked her and said I’d prefer to just take the road soas not to miss any step of trail.
Back on the trail I wound along a mesa top before dropping into and climbing out of several washes and canyons. I dropped into General Springs Canyon after dark and tried to keep visions of the Mogollon Monstor out of my head. I also wasn’t too stoked on being near water at night when all the critters came out. To make things worse, my period started...over a week early. I figured that might have had something to do with the meltdown over Band-Aid water.
I passed a hunters camp, complete with roaring campfire, near the head of General Springs Canyon. I climbed up and reached the trailhead. There was a nice campsite there, but it was right next to the road and it was the weekend. There were lots of cars and hunters in the area, although not right there. My general rule is to never camp within a mile of the road, so I kept going.
This proved to be a mistake as the trail continued to follow a road until it precipitously dropped off into a deep canyon that had burned. Erosion had greatly damaged the trail tread and I picked my way tediously down loose rocky terrain. It was steep and nasty and there was no place to camp. I finally found a marginal site near the first crossing of the East Verde River.
One of the highlights of the entire hike came the next morning as I followed the highline trail for MILES in and out of small canyons as it followed the Mogollon Rim. There were springs flowing with lovely water, elk, and redrock. The views were tremendous. I was in heaven. By noon I began dropping off of the Rim and toward the highway. By now it was hotter and more exposed and I looked forward to reaching THAT Brewery in Pine where my resupply boxes (complete with new shoes!) sat waiting for me.
I walked the mile to the Brewery and collected my boxes. The staff were very helpful and kind, even on a busy Saturday. I charged my phone and handled my resupply. The server that brought me my burger seemed dubious I could eat it. I’d ordered the biggest thing on the menu: the “Mogollon Monster” which was comprised of a lot of cow, elk, cheese, and general goodness. It was reparation for the cowshit in my water and easily consumable. I reckoned that the Mogollon Monster was really not a match for a Mile Monster like myself.
The miles south of Pine were easy for a time. Then I crossed the Mazatzal wilderness boundary and everything went to hell. It was dark and the next several miles required navigating by cairns alone across a rocky landscape. There was no trail tread to speak of. It was tedious and slow and I will certainly admit to cussing the AZT out on numerous occasions over the next few hours. The trail eventually seemed to improve, if only marginally, and I was surprised to see a tent nestled under a tree. I averted my headlamp and tried to sneak by without disturbing the occupant(s).
Just after I passed an Australian man’s voice called out, “Hello?”
“Just hiking by! Sorry!” I responded, feeling bad for waking him.
He then asked if I was hiking the AZT and which direction I was going. The conversation was rather convoluted, but the salient points were that his phone had died and he had no maps, he’d hurt his leg, and that he’d left the trail at some point and “gone totally bush” for 10 hours searching for water. However, he only asked me about the tank north (he was going the opposite way) and whether I’d seen cars at the trailhead. He didn’t ask for help and didn’t indicate that his injury was serious so when he bade me goodnight I continued on.
He was right that the trail was better. Thankfully! Three miles later I reached WhiteRock Spring where I loaded up on water (probably better than the East Verde) to get me to the Horse Camp Seeps some 40 miles away. I found a little flat spot a short distance away which was rock hard. My hips ached since I’m a side sleeper and frankly I sort of wished I were more exhausted so that I could have slept better.
In the morning the drop down to the East Verde River was easy. It was the ascent up into the Maztazals that was a bitch. It was hot, the trail was an old road that was steep and rocky and as the day went on the trail became more and more overgrown. The climb itself was torture. In the nature of setting a self-supported FKT I had chosen to carry supplies from Pine to Summerhaven: 277 miles...a full 7 days. Combined with the gallon of water on my back my pack was tipping the scales at close to 40lbs. To that add manzanita, cat claw, grass, and any number of other desert plants that were ripping at all exposed skin and it makes for a miserable day. The elevation gain seemed endless and I ran out of water. It took me far longer to travel the 30 some odd miles to the potholes than I had anticipated. I struggled through the heat of the day, head swimming. Finally I reached the camp. I descended off trail to the slabs where the potholes were. I had several large options. One contained a huge dead beetle of unknown venomnousness, the second contained a dead frog, the third was laden with suspicious looking algae. I opted for the dead frog,
I didn’t bother to chlorinate, just chug (through my inline filter). I gulped down 2 liters of dead frog water without hardly a breath. Then I filled up again for the long haul to Bear Spring. It was going to be a late night. Then I stripped and soaked my dress with some of the water. I rung it out and put it on. Deliciously cold against my hot skin. Evaporative cooling system in place I headed out again for more climbing through the rugged terrain.
I reached the cairned turn off for Bear Spring well after dark. I turned and went down there expecting a nice source. Instead I found a cloudy pool with black maggoty looking things inching around in it. I topped off my bladders without so much as a wrinkle of my nose. A few hundred feet down the trail from the turn off I found someone cowboy camping on the trail. I felt bad waking them up, but there were miles to go before I could sleep. I hurried by.
The trail kept climbing. How was it even possible that it could be climbing more?! I reached the ridgeline and saw the vast twinkling lights of a huge city sprawling in the distance. It suddenly dawned on me that it was Phoenix. I had walked from Utah to Phoenix in what? 9 days? I felt overwhelmed, then giddy. Then, tired. I pushed on along the ridge crossing saddles and contouring. I crossed to the west side and was met with overgrowth so thick I could literally lean on it and not make progress. I screamed at it and cursed as I fought my way through. My arms, hands and legs were covered in blood when I emerged from the thicket. Catclaw thorns stuck out of me everywhere. I would pick at them idly over the coming days as I noticed them.
Finally I reached the saddle I’d picked to camp in and hastily set up. It’d been a rugged, tough 37 miles, but at least I’d essentially crossed the Mazatzals which had a reputation as being the hardest passage of the trail. I set up camp and ate dinner before falling asleep. As I drifted off I thought about changing the time on my alarm, but something about the day had galvanized me. I was going to set an FKT out here no matter what it took. I wasn’t suffering through the weight of this carry and these sorts of miles for anything less.
The first few miles of the morning were a steady descent which was a nice change from the previous day’s seemingly endless climbing. I topped off my water at the Cornucopia Trail junction. The spring there was flowing slightly and looked good even with algae in it. The next miles were interesting as I followed the trail markers and cairns down drainages. It was nice to escape the heat by following washes. I climbed up and out of the washes and over a small ridge. The terrain became more obviously cow country and I passed out of the Mazatzals and into rangeland. There were several nice meadowy areas, but the water had all been despoiled by cattle.
As the heat increased I went through my water faster and drained it on the dirt roads still several miles from the highway crossing and Sycamore Creek. About this same time I ended up following “Diarrhea Cow” which was leaving a series of liquified cow plops on the trail. I did my best to avoid them, but cringed when some inadvertently splashed up onto the back of my leg. My God, how I hate hiking through range!
Eventually I crossed under the highway and followed nice singletrack toward an obvious watercourse in the distance. The bright green Sycamores were a vibrant gash across the brown and red landscape. I reached the shady creek to find a series of large pools with nice flow between them. I walked right down into the creek bed and hopped around looking for the nicest one. At one point I was evaluating a candidate and realized I was looking at the backs of two turtles nestled down in the mud with barely an inch of water covering them!
I again soaked my dress, filled my water, and rested for a few minutes before heading back into the mid-day heat to try and cover another 18 miles. I sipped on vaguely turtle tasting water and wondered if Sawyer filters removed Salmonella…
The trail wound upward through hot rangeland passing cattle and crossing and recrossing the dry Boulder Creek drainage multiple times. I willed myself to move conservatively, but evenso I had found myself collapsing under the marginal shade of some gangly desert tree more than once. I did not know it at the time, but Arizona was experiencing an unusually hot October with temperatures running 15 degrees warmer than usual. Although I didn’t know the exact temperature I knew that it was certainly more than the 85-90 degrees I had been expecting.
Around 4 I popped out onto a dirt road. At first I didn’t realize that I would be following it for so long, but after a few miles I realized that I was going to be on road nearly to my camp destination for the night. That helped me mentally as I was able to zone out a bit and just hike. The road was alternately steep and mellow as I climbed up and wound around and through the Four Peaks. Along the way I found a water cache and was happy to drink an extra couple of liters. I topped out just before dark and enjoyed a spectacular moonrise as I followed the ridgeline. Eventually I crossed a cattle guard and began descending in earnest toward Pigeon Spring Trailhead.
I turned off the road at the trailhead and went .1 to the signed Pigeon Spring. I was shocked to see a tree stand (unoccupied) erected in the tree next to the spring with the seat facing the pool. For some reason I was fairly certain that would not be subject to Forest Service approval. I sat on the cement edge and scooped water from the spring with a ziploc baggie. There was a faint odor and a lot of dead leaves and tannins. However, it was water and I was very tired.
I found a campsite nearby and managed to get the tent set up, despite the concrete hard ground. I found myself missing the soft desert floor of the Mojave along the PCT. I pulled my hat low over my eyes that night to block out the incredibly bright full moon.
The next morning I discovered that the Mazatzal’s were not the only overgrown section of the AZT. I got sliced and diced again as I climbed up and wound around through an old burn. Finally I began descending toward the Mills Ridge Trailhead. I came around a corner and was shocked to see a person walking toward me.
He asked if I was a thru-hiker and I said yes. I was even more shocked when I asked him the same and he also responded that he was. Who the hell starts NoBo on the AZT in October? Come to find out his name is Mammoth, a Norwegian man who is stringing together 20,000 miles of North American hiking including the Triple Crown and now the AZT. I was greatly impressed.
Shortly after meeting him I was thrilled to see my first Saguaro Cactus. Yes, I am in love with these plants. The remaining miles down to the span bridge over an arm of Roosevelt Lake passed by quickly despite the heat as I gawked at them.
Walking along the shoulder of the highway on the bridge was a very PCT/Bridge of the Gods moment. Mammoth had warned me that tomorrow would be full of PUDs (Pointless Ups and Downs). He wasn’t aware that that would be tonight for me. I felt dizzy with the heat. It was well over 100 degrees. I couldn’t bear the thought of climbing up into the Superstitions and doing all those PUDs in it. It was easy to decide to make the turn at the Cemetery Trail and walk down to the Ranger Station and Marina area.
I walked up to the Ranger Station and was thrilled to see that the .4 had been worth it. Shady benches, a drinking fountain outfitted with a bottle filler, an electrical outlet, trash cans, and wonder of all wonders: a vending machine.
I sat in the shade for over an hour chain drinking ice cold Pepsi’s from the vending machine. I’d done 22 miles and had 20 left to get to Reavis Creek. I finally pried myself off of the bench and headed out. The heat slammed into me like a ton of bricks, but I persevered. Happily I entered the cool recesses of Cottonwood Canyon not far from the Cemetery Trail junction.
I walked along the cool earth path, for once not really minding the cow messes. There was water here, but I was happy I’d filled up with cleaner water (not to mention soda) at the ranger station. I giggled to myself about the sign that had been hanging at the exit of the parking lot. It was a dull federal gray and had been faded by intense UV to boot, but it said in huge letters: “Enjoy your Tonto.” That refrain would become comical over the course of the night.
I reached a dirt road at the head of Cottonwood Canyon just as it became headlamp hour. I scared the bejabbers out of a cow on the road as I turned my headlamp on. I started hiking upward and saw the red eyes of what I thought was a bat on the road ahead of me. As I drew closer it flapped up into the air and winged a ways away before landing in the road again. It did this repeatedly and I began to wonder if it was a rabid bat since the behavior was so odd. After a half dozen rounds of this it didn’t take off and I crept up to it carefully. Upon closer inspection I could see that it wasn’t a bat, but a bird. I concluded it must be an owl, although it was small and the eyes weren’t right. Bat-Bird-Owl flew up and away this time. I saw many of them that night. After the hike I discovered that they are Nighthawks. A word used often to name many products from motorcycles to military planes, but I never knew what they actually were.
The climb up and around toward the highpoint of T-Bar ridge involved several other climbs, just as Mammoth had warned. I passed through the boundary gate of the Superstition Wilderness and made my way up the steep grade. I topped out and began descending, noting the lights of Phoenix in the distance again. I was hiking fast and nearly collided with a tarantula about the size of my head! Holy moly...this was the granddaddy of them all. This guy was definitely not yielding the trail to me and seemed completely ambivalent to my presence. His abdomen was a golden color, different than others I’d seen. I wondered if it was a sub-species or an age related coloration.
My nose decided at this point that it was not happy with the excessively dry air and began gushing blood. There wasn’t much I could do about it except let it go. Finally I was on the last climb up to T-Bar ridge, enjoying some additional lighting from the moon. I paused to pull a ProBar out of my pocket. I unwrapped it and took a bite and caught eyes in the beam of my headlamp. Was that…?! I squinted and aimed my light into the space beneath a juniper tree about 100 feet away. I saw the silhouette of pointed ears above the eyes and yes, definitely: a mountain lion.
I realized over the next few minutes that there is a concrete shift in attitude that comes somewhere between your 1st and 7th mountain lion sighting. I stood there in the dark, eating my bar, watching the lion. In turn, the lion sat there like an overgrown housecat, reclined on it’s haunches, ears perked, eyes blinking. I was vaguely concerned that I was covered in fresh blood.
I finished my snack and shoved the wrapper into my pocket. Then I clacked my trekking poles together and yelled, “Go on now! I am coming through! Hyah!”
With this encouragement, the lion turned and lazily walked uphill with a swish of its long tail. The trail of course passed directly below where it had gone and I checked around me several times as I walked by. I reached the ridgeline and then the trail made a 90 degree turn to the right and began to follow it. Almost immediately I saw familiar eyes in front of me. I yelled again and they vanished off the west side of the ridge.
PUDs indeed ruled the night. Not only that, but the trail was steep and rocky and loose. My shoes skidded and I fell twice. The second time I snapped a trekking pole. The road shoes I’d been wearing for the first half of the trail had been perfect. The second pair were being slaughtered by the rugged terrain of the Mazatzals and Superstitions.
“Enjoy your Tonto.” Indeed.
I nearly jumped out of my skin when my light illuminated something just in front of me on the ground that sat up. Two people cowboy camped. I apologized for waking them, but they said no worries. The night dragged on. I was moving so slowly. I regretted deciding to do the long carry and begrudged the weight on my back. I regretted sitting so long at the ranger station. I felt a little wobbly in the head as I neared the 19 hour mark of hiking.
I saw deer and skunks as well as rabbits and any number of other mystery eyes. I checked my progress. I was still 4 miles away from Reavis Creek. There had not really been any campsites for a long time and I wondered how long it was going to take me to get there. I noticed Pine Creek mentioned in the app about 1 mile ahead. I knew it would have a campsite, even if it was poor. It was 3 miles short for the day, but I couldn’t go on. I was so exhausted.
I don’t even remember if I ate dinner that night. I passed out around midnight: 20 hours after my day had started. “Enjoy your Tonto.”
I reached Reavis Creek early, while the canyon was still very cold. I shivered my way to the crossing and filled up my water. It was a nice change of pace to see a flowing creek. I knew later in the day I’d be wishing for cooler temps and I tried to savor them, but my hands were painfully cold and I just yearned to get to the head of the canyon and into the sun. The one consolation I reminded myself of was that the multiple bees nests mentioned along the trail in the area would not be active in these temps. I’d fussed and worried about Africanized Honeybees for months and daily to this point, so I was happy that in the end it was going to be a non-issue.
I crossed Reavis Saddle and de-layered in the sun. Then I began my descent to Rogers Trough Trailhead. Several switchbacks down I was surprised to run into an older couple hiking up. They were clearly out for the day and they were impressed that I was hiking the entire trail. I noticed his Leadville 100 t-shirt, but was too shy to ask whether he was a long distance runner or not. There were two trucks in the parking lot and I wondered where the people of the second truck were.
The next few miles were on roads and I climbed high up to have nice views of the Superstitions. I missed the trail junction where the trail diverged from the road, but realized my mistake .1 later. I backtracked and took the faint, steep tread down into Reavis Canyon. It was hot and open, but easy miles. I soon saw a windmill come into view.
I headed down off of the trail, weaving through the saguaros and other cacti to get to it. My nose began bleeding again and I tried to stifle it with my already bloodsoaked bandana. I reached the windmill and tank to find the rancher and his daughter there, rounding up the cows. He asked if I’d fallen and “busted my nose.” I shook my head and asked if it was ok to take the water from the tank. He said yes, but that he’d turn the windmill on for me if I wanted fresh water, I just had to wait for them to finish with the cows.
I walked over to the tank and was surprised to see koi swimming busy laps, eating bees that were drowning in the water. It was a weird cloudy blue. Though I’d never drank water from a koi pond before I decided I’d wait for that windmill offer.
They were kind and took my trash, including my broken trekking pole, and gave me a replacement walking stick. I hiked back up the hill to the trail with a real cowboy trekking stick and fresh well water brought to the surface by the windmill. Unfortunately the weight of the stick was heavy and it threw off my stride. Within a few miles I could feel weird twinges in my hip and knee. I left it propped against a cairn in hopes that someone else would be able to use it in the future.
I reached the Picketpost Trailhead at 5pm. Mile 500 in 12 days, 1 hour. I felt tired from the long day the day before, but happy at the progress. For the only time on the hike I played music and in combination with caffeine managed a lot of fast miles through the rolling terrain of the Alamo Canyon Passage. I reached the cache box at the top of the ridge by 9 and set up even though a rather gusty breeze was blowing. I drank and ate and fell asleep.
At 11 the flapping of my tent in the wind woke me up. I knew immediately that I’d get no sleep there. The last thing I wanted to do was break camp, but I knew I needed to. I put my food bag and gallon of water into my backpack and put my shoes on. Then I zipped my tent closed, pulled up the stakes and picked the whole thing up in my arms. I stumbled .2 down the trail lugging most of my gear in my arms, swaddled in my tent. The trail finally curved around a land feature that blocked the wind and I hastily set it up right on the trail. Very inconvenient, but I was desperate to get back to sleep.
4 am I was up and getting ready to go. The canyon of the Gila awaited! I descended toward the Gila River and noticed that it was already hot at 7am. My phone’s touch screen seemed to be losing sensitivity and I struggled to navigate the Guthook app. I felt a knot form in my stomach. Without that I’d be dead in the water, or rather, dead without water. I turned it off and hoped restarting it would do the trick.
A short while later I scared up a small herd of javelinas! I’d never seen them before so it was an exciting wildlife encounter to add to my ever growing list. Arizona had been delightful for that. The day grew hotter and I dropped lower. To my dismay the trail never really went very close to the Gila, and when it did, there was a fence. I began to run low on water. My head spun. I could tell it was at least 100, probably hotter. I fought a strong headwind that sucked the moisture from my body rapidly. I began to feel as though I’d mummify while walking. After many, many hot, windy, dry miles I stumbled out to the road. I thought about going down to the Gila for water at an accessible point, but I also knew there was a water cache at the next road. And if it was empty the pizza place in Kearney would deliver water with your order.
I plodded on, uphill. I came to a gate and realized I had lost some of my fine motor skills. I gave up trying to open the clasps and climbed over it. I reached the cache box and held my breath… “Would there be water?”
I fumbled with those clasps too, but desperation helped me and to my absolute relief I saw several gallons of public water placed by… Sequoia! I said a prayer of thanksgiving and chugged 3 liters. I wondered what that said about my state of hydration. Then, with 5 more liters on my back I headed out into the Tortilla Mountains.
The trail wasn’t particularly hard and as the sun angle diminished I felt less punished by it’s intensity, despite climbing up Big Hill. I reached the summit as the sun dipped below the horizon. The wind did not diminish and I began to worry about finding a place to sleep without it. I descended off the high point of the passage into a confusing maze of washes and bypasses. I followed markers and my GPS through the darkness, not sure what direction I was heading or what the overall flow of the trail was.
I crossed into a large wash and followed confusing posts for about .2 before I realized I’d gone up a wash instead of simply crossing it. I backtracked, irritated. I crossed out of that wash and went up a small ridge and then back down, crossing another wash. As I climbed the other side a loud grating sound started up on the other side of the wash, away from the crossing. I stopped for a second and looked over there, trying to figure it out.
“Loud, really pissed Diamondback…” I mumbled to myself and resumed hiking. “I wasn’t even near you!” I shouted back at it. My first brush with a rattlesnake on the trail. I became even more intent on where I was putting my feet.
It was still hot. I was very low in elevation and the desert was not cooling off rapidly as I would have expected. Sweat still ran down my temples and back. I was drinking more water than usual at night, now that the 3 liters had stopped sloshing in my gut. It was 7pm. I pondered possible solutions. Adaptability is the name of the game in the desert and I decided to do as the mammals here did. I started looking for camping. It took another hour to find a reasonable spot out of the gusting wind. I pitched my tent between Saguaro, Agave, and snake holes.
The alarm went off at 3am and I packed fast. It was comfortably cool as I hauled ass along the trail, trying to put in as many miles as I could before the death orb rose. Always cold, I have been a sun worshipping hiker my entire life...this trail was making me embrace the cold pure light of the moon in a whole new way.
The wind hadn’t relented and it continued to strip moisture from my body as I pounded along the powerline road. I was thankful for flat miles. Just after daybreak I heard a snort and looked up to see a javelina running away from me. Half eaten Prickly Pear fruit lie in the trail.
At 9am I saw a sign and blinked. Really? It was true. I was at Freeman Road...17 miles done. There was the possibility of a cache here, but I hadn’t counted on it. Indeed, the box was empty and two blue jugs behind it appeared to have been vandalized. The spigots were broken off. One had a mere inch of water in it, the other was half full of water which was thickly laden with insects, leaves, and a dead tarantula. I bypassed the water, accepting the heat of the daytime as I entered the Black Hills passage and focused only on getting to the Mountain View tank 15 miles ahead.
The elevation profile for the Black Hills indicated that it was going to be tough, but I was surprised that the climbs were not as challenging as expected. It was certainly hillier than the Tortillas, but the trail was good (and there was still a lot of road). Mainly, it was the heat that pushed down on me. I remembered the triple digit days of the southern PCT in 2013. How had I done that? How was I doing it now? Rationing water for 40, even 50 miles. Sipping. Dealing with the achingly dry throat. Allowing myself to feel the drying of my tissues while I moved forward. Accepting the swimming mind when it came. Not fighting the urge to drop down in puddles of sparse shade during the hottest hours, but also never allowing myself to stay for more than 2 minutes. Onward, stopping only to pull out the cholla babies that clung to my ankles.
I reached the Mountain View Tank around 2:30. Only an hour left before the sun hit the lessening angle. I climbed up the ladder and stared at the green water full of minnows and algae islands. Bird shit and wasps were everywhere. I ripped my dress off and doused it, wringing it out outside the tank, watching water cascade down to the dry dust. Wasps flocked to the moisture. I felt dizzy hanging onto the topmost rung while wriggling back into the soaked fabric. I smiled at the image of what I must look like up there, 15 feet in the air, perched naked on a rusted metal ladder with wasps swarming under the hot desert sun in a cacti laden landscape.
It took multiple trips up and down the ladder to fill my water bladders. I chlorinated the contents and sat there staring at the water while I waited 30 minutes. I trusted my Sawyer filter, but I had been warned that the water here often tasted bad, and I figured chlorination would help with that. At last I was able to down 2.5 liters and refill. The wet dress dried, cooling me off where I sat in the sparse shade of some desert tree. A cow wandered up and stopped short when it saw me. It was tentative.
“I’m not hungry.”
It turned and snuck through the cacti, keeping a wary eye on me. It went to the smaller trough nearby and drank with great slurping noises. I packed up and headed out with 5 liters on my back again.
It was then that I met my nemesis of the remaining trail: grasslands. The grass overgrew the trail and it’s fall seedpods were like arrows driving straight through the uppers of my shoes and stabbing into my feet. I stopped several times to pull them out, but finally in the interest of time I had to simply go somewhere else in my mind, turning off the receptivity to the pain until I stopped for the night.
The trail descended into washes and climbed up. Over and over and over. They were tiny, but the constant up and down was tiring. So was fighting through grass. I couldn’t see my feet and I was terrified of stepping on a snake. As darkness fell I began to move slower, even more paranoid of a snake encounter.
I dropped down into Tucson Wash and noted the nice campsites. It was too soon to stop though. I was trying to make it to Tiger Mine Road 4 miles ahead. I climbed up and crossed over another ridge and dropped down toward another wash a mile later. Near the bottom I saw a huge rattlesnake coiled in the trail. Too late I leaped as high as I could over it and crashlanded on the loose dirt and rock. I fell and slid down the trail scraping my leg up. I leaped to my feet and whirled around, trekking poles at the ready in case it was coming at me. My heart was pounding. The snake was still coiled right where I had left it. No rattling. My curiosity got the better of me and I took a few steps up toward it. My headlamp revealed….a cowpie.
I continued down into the wash, suddenly feeling dizzy and nauseous from the adrenaline. It was cool there and I decided to pitch my tent right in the wash. Surprisingly the stakes held. I set my alarm for 3 am again and went to sleep.
I couldn’t help but feel like it was the middle of the night when I started pushing my way through the grass and up out of the wash. Probably because it was. I realized I didn’t have time to be cautious about where I was putting my feet, snakes or no snakes. I just banked on the belief that all nocturnal hunters would have full bellies by 4am and be headed back to where they spend the daytime.
I reached Tiger Mine Road and opened the cache box out of curiosity rather than need. I was planning to get water at High Jinks Ranch in 10 miles. It was full of a mish mash of water jugs, all of which seemed to be personal caches. I was looking for an empty that I could cut new inserts for my shoes out of since the sole was worn so thin I was worried that cactus would start coming through when I stepped on them. There were no empty jugs, so I walked up to the dirt road and walked rapidly down it. I took advantage of the wide, level surface and straight shot to the highway to post pictures on Instagram. I’d been too tired to document much of anything the last few days, and my break stops hadn’t had data.
It was still well before 6am when I reached the highway and I missed the sign leading me right and under the road. So I ran across and looked around. There was certainly no way to get down into the wash on the other side. I turned around and my headlamp illuminated the sign on the other side of the road. Back across I went. I’m sure the handful of cars that went by were wondering what the hell I was doing.
I walked under the highway, ducking slightly since the passage was full of sand from flash flooding. On the other side there was...a cache box. I opened it and was shocked to see gallons of fresh water for public use. There was even a register. I happily dumped the cow tank water and refilled with clean water. I forced myself to chug the other two so I could keep the jug for shoe repairs.
I entered Oracle State Park and fell in love with it’s rolling landscape. It was pre-dawn on a Saturday morning and yet I had the entire place to myself. Yet another sunrise dazzled me with it’s beauty and I walked onward happily. I crossed out of the park and soon passed the American Flag trailhead. From there it was about 2 miles of climbing up to the junction with High Jinks Ranch, a former holding of Buffalo Bill. I went in and got water from the hose. I took a moment to backflush my filter there with the hose water.
I can’t even describe the rest of the day, except to say it was one of the hardest days of the trail. I finally only had a day of food on my back after an entire week. I was carrying 2.5 liters of water, but the gain was relentless. The trail quality on Oracle Ridge was not good (rocky, eroded, overgrown) and I moved slower than I should have. The heat didn’t relent, though I was going up thousands of feet in elevation. This was not what I had expected from my first Sky Island.
I reached the road that led to Summerhaven around 2. I was out of water, hot, and irritable. But as soon as the town was in sight I felt better. Ice cream was on the horizon! I stopped at the PO and mailed the postcards I’d carried for 277 miles into the box. I continued on to the store and impulse bought 2 liters of Gatorade (which I chugged and then regretted) and a bunch of food. I collected my box and sorted through. I cut up the water jug and slid plastic inserts between the shoe and insole. I charged my phone. 3 days to Patagonia. No excuses. No short days. I had to get there before that store closed on Tuesday. Then...only 54 miles left. Would I walk til midnight Wednesday? I decided not to think about it then.
More than one employee came out to check on me, offer help, chat. Wonderful people who love hikers. I felt blessed to be in this space. Finally it was time to load up and head for Hutch’s Pool. Had I known how burly the trail through Wilderness of Rocks and down to Romero Pass was I would have cut my stop even shorter.
The Wilderness of Rocks was an incredible place, like a cross between Yosemite, Joshua Tree and City of Rocks. I wanted to throw down my pack and ascend the boulders. To feel the freedom of jamming my body into cracks and defying gravity…
I reached the Mt. Lemmon Trail junction just as darkness fell. I was relieved to not be navigating across slabs following cairns by headlamp. However, the trail down to Romero Pass was also slabby, narrow, rocky and steep. It was slow going, hampered by my own unfamiliarity with the area. I was expecting a trailhead/road at Romero, but it was simply a trail junction. I noted the Bighorn Sheep restoration sign and continued on. I found the Cathedral Rock trail junction around 9 and decided to camp. It was the first level spot I’d found. An inch of duff covered the rocks and I managed to half-assedly get stakes into the ground. I was so tired I didn’t even feel the rocks as I fell asleep.
I found water in the canyon in the morning and filled up. I didn’t need to walk off trail to Hutch’s Pool in the dark for water if it wasn’t necessary. In the end, I passed the turnoff without even seeing it. The trail continued to be rocky and tedious for many miles. Finally I reached the Gordan Hirabayashi trailhead. I saw the set-up of a bike race. Great. I was going to be dodging bikes all day…
As it turned out, the bike race was basically over and I only saw one cyclist, who was very polite. It was not a big deal, thankfully. I was grumpy and I knew it. The almost end was here. I had to do 48 miles today through one of the hardest elevation days of the entire trail, the day before being the other one. I set my mind to it.
I descended through Molino Basin Campground and crossed the Catalina Highway. From there it was a mile up to a saddle that overlooked the rolling landscape that lay between me and the Rincons. They looked far away...and I was going all the way across them tonight. It was a bit disheartening.
Three men with the bike race were there and they assured me the event was over. I began my descent. I wasn’t planning to get water until Manning Camp which was over the other side of the Rincons, but I was moving slower than expected. The heat was making me drink more. I was rationing already. I took advantage of the long descent on an even grade and pushed the pace. At the bottom I was once again in rolling terrain that wasn’t too challenging, just hot and exposed. I gathered some emergency water at the algae laden Agua Caliente. I soaked my dress too, but regretted it as soon as I realized how badly the water smelled.
At the Redington Road I saw a sealed gallon jug of water propped against the gate. Without pause I opened it and guzzled half of it without pausing for breath. I hadn’t realized how desperately thirsty I was. I felt like I was a little out of control of myself. I went to put the lid back on and realized that it had been chewed completely through by tiny teeth. I tried to not think about Hanta Virus. I put it back into place and dumped out the Agua Caliente water. I walked on. A few hours later, to my surprise, 3 young men popped over a rise and came trucking toward me. I was almost to the Saguaro National Park Boundary, it was 4 pm.
“How far up are you going?” the first one asked.
“Through the park.” I was tired and not in the mood for explanation or conversation.
I could tell from their response that they didn’t realize I meant that night (almost 20 more miles up and over the Rincons). I smiled to myself as they boasted about having hiked all the way across today already. They vanished down the trail and I dropped over the rise to the Tanque Verde Canyon. I gave a little cry of surprise. Clear, cold water was flowing.
Figuring they weren’t coming back I stripped and washed the algae water out of my dress, using handfuls of sand to scrub. I thought about dumping out the water I had from Sabino Canyon and refilling with this that looked better, but resisted. Time...time...it was all about time today and I was already wasting precious minutes doing laundry on a nearby rock.
I soon crossed into the national park and signed into the register. 5pm, day 15. I looked a few names above mine to see Michael Versteeg’s sign in: 13 days. I felt a little pang of excitement for him. He must’ve finished in about 16 days! Incredible. This thought bolstered me to climb a little faster.
The trail quickly became damp and littered with pine needles. It was cool up here and it had rained. I gulped in the desert after the rain scent. I almost felt at home. I reached Italian Spring as deep dusk was urging me to put on my headlamp. I drank my fill and filled up my water. I didn’t care that I hadn’t made it to Manning Camp. This water was a clear, lovely pool and I was almost to the top of the climb. I just had to make it to La Sevilla Picnic Area. I used my trusty Ziploc baggie to scoop and pour water, avoiding the interesting black bugs that lived in the spring.
I slid into my jacket and climbed. It was actually chilly up here. There were many junctions and I almost went the wrong way at Mica Mountain. I misread the topo lines and thought I had to climb to Manning Camp, when in fact it was time to descend. I took half a caffeine pill. I would need my wits about me...I had 15 miles to go to reach the Rincon/Park Boundary. I would be hiking until at least midnight. I began to question my decision to not try and get a permit to camp at Grassy Shack, but then I sternly reminded myself that I was staying on track for an FKT no matter the cost. It was Rincon for the night or bust.
The descent to Grassy Shack, past Manning Camp, was fast and furious and exhilarating. I felt the miles fly by as I dropped thousands of feet in elevation. But, then, the grass of the Grassy Shack camp started. I fought through it and fought the many seeds that stabbed into my feet. My pace slowed. I turned onto the Quilter Trail (after missing the turnoff and having to backtrack because it wasn’t signed for SoBo hikers) and felt frustration at all the elevation gain. Time slowed to a crawl. I just wanted to go down!!
I entered a slabby creek area and looked around for trail on the other side. Something prompted me to look back and I saw a small animal with a long tail creeping toward the water. It saw me and darted out of sight. A coatimundi!!! I smiled despite my fatigue at this rare animal sighting. Finally I dropped below the grassy elevations and entered a world of towering Saguaro’s. I ogled at them illuminated in my headlamp. I felt a stabbing sensation in my foot and turned it up to see a cactus spine sticking out. I yanked it free from my foot and the sole of my shoe and threw it to the side. Obviously the jug inserts weren’t completely effective.
Finally, stumbling, dizzy with fatigue and walking in a near trance, I crossed out of Saguaro National Park. It was 1am. I’d been hiking for almost 21 hours. I crossed the Rincon, no where to sleep. I walked a little farther and found something flattish. I set up my tent poorly and crawled inside. I don’t remember whether I ate. I slept the sleep of the dead.
The sun was already up when I awoke. The night before I had once again fought with my motivations and desire to push myself to the hard place, the limits of my physical ability, into sleep deprivation. Though I was committed to the FKT, I had still allowed myself a full 5 hours of sleep. My alarm went off at 6am. I was packed and walking within 15 minutes, well aware that it was going to be hot soon and that I should make miles. I feared another late night walking into the Santa Ritas and as close to Kentucky Camp as I could get.
The trail was nondescript traversing mostly flat terrain, crossing dirt roads before arriving at La Sevilla Picnic area. It was an oasis that made me want to stay all day long. A ramada had a water spigot and a bottle of soap. There was shade and trash cans. I drank and drank and drank until I felt like I might vomit. I would top off at La Cinegas Creek in about 7 miles and then there was no guaranteed water from there for 36 miles to Kentucky Camp.
I washed my hands with soap. It was luxurious. I then washed my socks and filled my water bladders. I threw away my trash (why does that always feel so good?!) and said hello to the caretaker who came through. Then I continued through the winding terrain. This passage is popular with mountain bikers for a reason. The grade was good and the climbs were short as I wound in and out of washes and small hills. I saw several folks on foot and bike, one woman cyclist even dismounted for me saying, “You look driven.”
I guess it was written on my face: the miles I’d done and the miles I had left to go. The long, hot days with little water. The bloodstains from nosebleeds, acacia attacks, and falls. The fatigue. The knowledge that I had to get somewhere before it was too hot, and before I could sleep again.
I crossed under the railroad tracks, protected by a shed that was covered in rocks. I was glad that it was there. Across the road and down to the Cinegas. I did mental arithmetic. I had a gallon on my back right now, it was 36 miles to Kentucky Camp. I could force a liter down and top off my gallon…
The rest of the day was a blur of washes and ridges. A thunderstorm grew and growled over the hill to my right. I was thankful that the trail wound up, and then around the left side of it. Rain began to fall and I slipped my rain jacket on. It wasn’t hard rain, but it was enough. After an hour it stopped. Thankfully it was cooler after that.
As night fell the ridges and washes turned to cow pastures and the drops into washes became deeper. I was climbing up and up into the Santa Ritas. I dropped into one wash and could not for the life of me figure out where the trail went. I walked up the wash for a while and then checked my GPS to see that I was too far upstream. I went back. No cairns, no trail. I fought my way through the grass. I was on the red line on my app, but no trail was on the ground. I spied a rusted out barrel that reminded me of a certain location on the Barkley course. It had an AZT sticker on it…
I eventually found the trail ascending up the steep embankment and climbed 100 feet up to an old road. I followed it and then dropped off the other side. Criss-crossing roads and washes and cow pastures in a confusing path through the darkness left me feeling like I wasn’t getting anywhere. I determined the AZT from cow paths by which trail went under too low of branches. Cows ran around terrified by my headlamp. I was tired. Finally I reached an area where there was supposed to be a cow tank that marked my earliest possible place I was allowed to stop. The grass was waist high and I couldn’t see the tank. I thought maybe there would have been camping by it.
The ground was rocky. I was on a two track. There was so much grass. I kept going. The trail climbed some more and after another couple of miles I found a small cleared space under a juniper tree. I didn’t care that my tent barely fit or that I couldn’t get stakes into the ground. I simply weighted them with rocks and crawled in. It was 10pm and I was toast. I set my alarm for 3am. I had to get to Patagonia before the Red Mountain Foods store closed at 6 to resupply for the last day, day and a half? I fell asleep with the question of how much longer I’d be out here still lingering in my mind.
I reached Kentucky Camp at 7am. I was surprised at how fast the miles had gone. Maybe I’d been stressing out too much about making it to Patagonia. I walked in and realized there were cabins there and obviously people lived there/were staying there as several cars were parked outside. There was a fancy outhouse and a water spigot and hose outside. I had just set my pack down when a man and a dog walked up from somewhere.
“Good morning!” I greeted them. I was suddenly uncertain if I could just take water. “Is it ok for me to get water from here?” I pointed at the hose.
“Morning. Come on up and get some from my sink.” He wrinkled his face, “That tastes like old hose.”
I followed him onto his porch where clean dishes sat in the rack next to the built in outside sink. He asked where I was hiking too and from and he offered me coffee. I’d taken a caffeine pill at 3. I accepted anyway…
He brought it out and told me it was ⅓ decaf. I figured it would work out then and was happy I’d accepted. He said he was from Houston, there to do hobby goldmining. Then he and his dog disappeared into the early sunlight.
I filled my water up and drank down the coffee. Suddenly it seemed like everything was going to be ok. I walked out of the Kentucky Camp happily. An older couple, I presume the caretakers, hailed me.
“Are you long distance?”
“Yep! All the way from Utah!”
“How long you been on trail?”
“17 days.” I am sure my jubilance overflowed into my words.
“17 days! That’s fast!“
Yes, yes it was. Although I knew that my schedule tucked in the top pocket of my pack, designed by the optimistic self at home with the knowledge of what I *could* do if my mind and body had been equally driven said I was supposed to arrive at the Mexican border tonight. Evenso, I felt good about my effort so far and what I had left to do.
The Santa Ritas weren’t as difficult as I’d expected. After my experience with the first two Sky Islands I’d expected to get my butt kicked, but the trail followed old roadways and did a lot of traversing. I crossed a beautiful creek in Casa Blanca Canyon and couldn’t pass up a chance to douse my dress and drink my fill before climbing up to the high point of the passage. I reached that saddle and began a long, hot exposed descent toward the town of Patagonia, mostly on dirt road.
Along the way a group of young men who were out hunting gave me an orange and a bottle of water. Counting the coffee that morning, it was trail magic round 3! I powered down the road literally feeling the miles count down. When I reached Patagonia I would only be 53 miles from the Mexican Border!
I reached the store at 3:30. I did three laps around it before settling on my purchases to eat then and to take with me. It was a tough pill to swallow, paying $46 for a day of food and some snacks to eat then, but it was a tiny health food store in a small town. And, I got to eat Tate’s Gluten Free cookies and a pint of Talenti’s Gelato. So, it wasn’t all that bad.
I sat at the picnic table in the shade out front, which had a resident lizard underneath. I could hardly believe I was almost done. It was decision time. Would I push myself to cover the last 53 miles between tonight and tomorrow, finishing late at night? Or, would I spread it out and finish on Thursday morning?
I weighed the factors of border security, night hiking in an area where Coyotes and migrants were known to travel (although no negative interactions have ever been reported), asking my dear friend (who has been repeatedly profiled when she hikes near the border) that was picking me up to wait near the border for me in the middle of the night, possibly causing her problems? Did I want to finish this hike in a zombie like state at 1 am?
The answer was easy: no. I didn’t want any of that. I wanted to finish in the morning, rested, with one last sunrise over the desert, and my friend getting her moments solo at the border in peace. I texted her to meet me at 8am on Thursday and I settled in with my gelato and savored it. There was no rush…
I hiked out of town around 5 pm. I regretted hanging out so long since I don’t like to be seen hitting the trail as a solo woman so close to dark. I also don’t like camping next to the highway. I ended up finding a place well off of the trail about a mile from the road which made me feel safe enough.
I was up at 3 again, and was surprised that it was actually cold and damp. I knew the Canelo Hills West had a wetland/wildlife sanctuary in it, but I hadn’t expected it to be that cold. The first hours were miserable. The trail was incredibly overgrown. Social trails from migrants crisscrossed everywhere. The grass was shoulder high and wet. My phone was nearly dead, but I kept having to run it to keep from getting lost. I wandered in circles near Gate Spring, literally unable to find the trail. I broke down and stood there sobbing. How could the trail be this bad? How could it be this cold and wet?
Finally sunlight found me and I began to thaw. The trail became more distinct, although it was still overgrown. I made my way to the Canelo Pass Trailhead, irritated at how much time I’d lost in the early hours. I was glad I hadn’t told Sirena to pick me up that night. It would have taken me until 1 or 2am.
After hours of cold, I found myself baking as I traveled the Canelo West passage. Up and down over ridges and through hill country, which was beautiful. Grass seeds continued to stab and plague me. I took a break in the shade and set my solar panel in the sun to try and get some charge in my phone. I took water from the Parker Lake outlet.
Finally I crossed the dirt road leading to the Parker Canyon Trailhead and entered the last passage. I snapped a pic of the Huachuca’s as I headed toward them. The last range!
I followed Scotia Canyon as afternoon gave way to evening. I entered Sunnyside Canyon as evening crossed into darkness. I clicked on my headlamp and began to climb. I wondered anxiously if I’d run into migrants trying to slip through the dark forest. I wondered if I was being watched. I became vaguely aware of the drone of an engine overhead, although a ways off. It was constant. Border Security. Drones? I focused only on the ascent. “There is nothing to be scared of…”
I reached the Crest Trail around 9 pm. I was tired. I wanted to go farther. To Bathtub Spring. To Montezuma Pass. To the Border. But no, there was a nice campsite under a sprawling pine tree. I crawled under it and pitched my tent. One last night amongst the pines and agave, breathing in the desert air…
I slept til 5. I didn’t want to arrive at the border before Sirena. I was only 12 miles away. I paused to text some people about .2 from my camp. I stood in the dark on the windy ridge and sent screenshots of my location to friends. I was just finishing when I heard a kerfuffle and crashing in front of me. I looked up to see the eyes of a very dismayed bear staring up at me from just down the ridge. I guess he wasn’t expecting a person to be standing on the trail!
I followed the ridgeline, trending upward toward Miller Peak. At the Carr Peak Trail junction I heard a helicopter. It was close by, but out of sight...in the vicinity of Bathtub Spring. I stood there uncertainly. What if Border Patrol was doing something and they wouldn’t let me pass through? Suddenly I regretted not pushing to the Border the day before. A few minutes later the helicopter flew away and I scurried along the trail. I reached the namesake Bathtub and looked around. Everything was quiet. I hurried past. A couple miles later as I neared the junction with the Miller Peak summit trail I heard the helicopter returning. I looked back to see it land on a hill near the spring. I watched for a minute and then continued on. I heard it leave again a few minutes later.
I was on familiar ground now. I’d climbed Miller Peak via Lutz Canyon last December. I had be conscientious of each rock and bend in the trail as I’d walked it, wondering what state I’d be in when I was here next. I doubted I’d anticipated feeling so good. It seemed like an agonizingly long time before I finally rounded the ridgeline and saw the cars parked at Montezuma Pass down below. It seemed like an eternity to follow the switchbacks down to it.
I blazed through the parking lot past at least 10 Border Patrol Agents. I was on a mission now. It was 9 am. I wanted to get to the border by 9:17. It was 1.8 miles. I flew down the trail. I couldn’t see the border until I was almost to it. Stakes at regular intervals marked the fence and then, yes, that was it! An obelisk shining in the sun with Sirena sitting right there.
She jumped up and took pictures as I strode up. I couldn’t stop smiling. 19 days 17 hours 9 minutes after I left Utah I was standing just feet from Mexico.
Somewhere in the wide open desert of Arizona I realized that I was going to get old. That I was going to die. That I wouldn’t be able to do 40-50 miles per day, day after day for months on end. It isn’t that I didn’t know it already, but I hadn’t ever truly considered it. There is something about the desert that makes you truly consider your own mortality and limitations. To recalibrate your life’s direction. I thought when I did the AT last year that that was going to be the end. Moving forward only on shorter adventures and climbing. To stop the walking of thousands of miles on end. Perhaps I should have known that I could not expect anything less of myself, but I didn’t. It was a relief and a joy to pursue and FKT that was only 800 miles, but it also reminded me of this very precious gift that I possess...the athletic capacity that I’m quite positive I have not yet maxed out and the reality that I may only have 5 years left to plumb its depths. Where will I go next? I’m not quite sure, but I know that even though I thought I was done with the questioning when I walked off of Springer Mountain the reality was that I was only done with one type of question. The AZT revealed to me that the question is no longer one of legitimacy, but one of capacity.
What am I capable of?
The answer to that is to be determined...