April 17, 2022
My sleepy mind acknowledged the whisper of a tarp dropping softly to the ground. I rolled over and cracked my lids to see the flash of a headlamp through the trees as Karen packed to leave around 4:30 AM. Early mornings are standard on the Arizona Trail. Desert heat chases hikers from their warm nests as they flee the brutal sun, trying to make miles before scrambling for shade at mid-day to await cooler afternoon temperatures.
I knew I would not fall back to sleep, so I pulled out my phone and began tapping out the previous day’s notes for my journal. My memory is not what it used to be, so I capture more details in my notes daily. I squinted through my scratched-up glasses, thinking I might have to try contacts again but also wondering how much cleaning solution and contact holders weighed. The weight, it was always about the weight.
By 5:30 AM, I was hiking. I paused to wake Puff as I passed his tent. He had asked me to be his alarm clock for the morning. We chatted for a minute, and my legs slowly carried me towards the trail before we had made it 30 seconds into our conversation. My body was ready to hike to see what the day held.
I grabbed some water at the pools after the park and then stopped about an hour later for a snack. I needed to wait on Cricket, who was out of toilet paper. I read, paced, took pictures, wrote anything to kill time, and a couple of hours later, Cricket caught up around 11 AM.
Our next goal was the East Verde River, which consisted of an eight-mile downhill hike out of the mountains. There were some switchbacks, but much of the trail felt as if it was straight down, and I cursed loudly as I slid to my butt at least three times.
Fortunately, I had mastered the art of sliding and falling, with the goal of not sliding off the trail and dropping hundreds of feet. I was pretty good. Once momentum had carried me past the point of recovery, I would throw myself back onto my backpack and self-arrest in place. My weight was like an anchor that would usually lock me to the ground. I referred to it as turtling. Few could turtle like me.
As I turtled my way down the steep slopes, I watched the bright green cottonwoods getting closer and dreamed of soaking my feet in the crisp, clear, cold, flowing water of the East Verde.
Once we reached the bottom of the massive hill, we climbed through some dry, hot washes before collapsing under a scrubby little tree. It was freakin hot! Cricket and I stretched out like overheated lizards in the shade before climbing to our feet, chanting, “Only a mile, only a mile.” The river was only a mile away.
Have you ever seen the movie Chainsaw Massacre? Some of the scenes have to have been filmed at the LF Ranch. We passed the closed gate to the ranch, and off through the trees, I could see a dilapidated old house surrounded by skeletons of old cars and trucks. There appeared to be even more dilapidated outbuildings, and occasionally I would hear the mournful bark of a dog.
I could see no movement on the ranch but only hear the barking of that one dog. This was like too many familiar movie scenes for me, and I picked up my speed as I made my way toward the river. I would cross the river before taking a break.
Reaching the river, I paused to examine the low water littered with rocks and small boulders. The water was wide, brown, and relatively shallow. My mind laid out the route, and I began my rock hop across. Over the years, my brain has learned to automatically formulate routes through and around obstacles. If I don’t force the path, my subconscious animal brain is much more efficient than my conscious “human” brain.
As I focused on my hopping, I heard someone shouting, which almost resulted in turtling. That would not have been good. Freezing on one foot and looking up, I saw a guy leaning out of a hammock and gesturing to me to make my way toward him. I did not hear what he said, but I did hear two words – trail magic.
Altering my hopping and making my way toward him, I saw a cooler and a freezer bag. I was about to meet former AZT thru-hiker Kyle, who had backpacked in three miles, soda, beer, fruit, jello, and snacks. My face lit up, and he returned the grin, telling me to help myself. I profusely thanked him as I dropped my backpack and grabbed a Sprite, some jello, and fruit.
This was the pinnacle of trail magic – in the middle of a very remote location when you least expected it. The Arizona Trail was not known for its trail magic like some of the larger, more established trails, and I believe that other than water caches, this was the second and last time I would experience it.
Cricket showed up a little after I did, and then Puff a little after that. Nailz, who was part of “The Hoard,” was already there, and she and a couple of her tramily were also enjoying the magic. The Hoard is a very large group that hiked the PCT last year. They have found camping on the AZT more challenging for large groups and have since split into two hoards. Nailz is probably the fastest of this sub-group, and I call them the Nailz Hoard now. I would go on to see them off and on for the rest of the hike.
I knew we would hike no further today, so after finishing my snacks, I walked up the hill, searching for camping. There was a large grassy area a couple of hundred yards away, and I set up my tent at the back, hoping not to be surrounded by snoring hikers. A bit later, I was joined by Puff on one side and Cricket on the other. I would need my earplugs, but Cricket was far enough away where they should work.
As we sat around making dinner, a new hiker (Star Gate) walked up and set up his tent about five feet behind me. He literally had the whole field and set up on top of me. I think our guylines even overlapped. I sighed as Puff looked at me, grinning, and started laughing. Ah well, I smiled back at Puff and also started laughing.
I was not paying that much attention to Star Gate because I was fascinated with the hiker on the other side of the trail, about 40 yards away. Often out here, you will see what you think are perfect tenting circles about the size of one two-person footprint. In the center of these perfect spots made just for your tent is often a tiny hole; if you look closely, you will see the ants going in and out of the hole.
The fellow across the trail had set up on such a tent spot, and I watched him, wondering how long it would take him to realize his nighttime bed was an ant colony. When I got up the following day, his tent was still there, so maybe the ants had vacated their home. Well, that was no fun.
Star Gate was a nice guy. He had traveled from Russia to do some backpacking around the US before returning to work. We all chatted, laughed, and got to know each other before climbing into our shelters, where I put in my earplugs that made no difference that night.