April 21, 2022
I had woken up during the night with a giant rock on my head, so I had dosed up on some more Nyquil and slept a bit. The sun wasn’t exactly bright in the sky, but it was also not the early morning grey I usually began hiking in. It was probably about 6:30 AM.
Stumbling out of my tarp, I struggled not to tip over in my Nyquil-induced haze and slowly began packing. Today, I was excited about climbing up to the Mogollon Rim and Colorado Plateau. This was another milestone in this hike.
I had heard so much about Nirvana, aka the Colorado Plateau. It was supposedly a park-like amble through massive Ponderosa, and today that felt pretty good. I still had one more steep climb up onto the plateau, though, so I began hiking slowly as my legs warmed up and my head cleared a little – at least until the Dayquil kicked in again.
At times, the thousand-foot climb felt straight up as the dusty, rocky trail wound its way up the face of the escarpment. The landscape began to change from red soils and manzanita to pine and light sandy dirt. The temperature was also dropping noticeably. The weather was perfect for a long climb!
Within about a hundred yards of the rim and Road 300 (dirt road), I spotted a black pickup truck with two people sitting next to it in chairs. As I approached, they jumped up and announced they had snacks if I wanted to take any. I looked in the truck’s bed, and amongst the processed snacks and candy was a bright red apple. Jackpot!
This is what I call trail magic – a serendipitous meeting when you least expect it. The meetings result in any assistance – rides into town, food, supplies. I was hiking the Mohawk Trail recently, and a man gave me his power cord so I could charge my phone. He was out day hiking. I left the cord at an agreed location further up the trail, and he picked it up later. Excellent trail magic; he was the only person I saw that day!
This time, the young couple providing the trail magic had just ended a backpacking trip early and decided to stop at an AZT trailhead and see if any thru-hikers arrived. We chatted for a few minutes while I ate my apple.
They were full of questions and were eager to do their own thru-hike. Mostly they wanted to know how I found the time to hike, especially after they learned of the other trails I had hiked over the years. I told them I had worked hard in a field where it was easy to get a job and quit every 3-5 years to hike a long trail. This allowed me to save for retirement and fund the hikes. Basically, I worked hard so I could hike.
As I crossed the road, I looked around and smiled. I was following another dirt road into the massive Ponderosas I had read about. This was some of my favorite hiking, strolling through huge Ponderosa forests with only the sounds of nature around me.
This was one of the few times the trail rumors did not do the hiking justice. The trail was flat and easy, and I gazed around me as I wound through the trees, stopping at the cabin near General Springs Trailhead for a short break and to look around the cabin. This site was so picturesque, and I could easily imagine living here in the summer. It was probably brutally cold in the winter.
I spent the rest of the afternoon hiking across the plateau and admiring the scenery. I passed the Nailz hoard a few times as they took breaks, and they always caught up with me and zipped past with a waving hand.
There was one fella, Spielberg, whom I chatted with a few times as we hiked. He was about my age, and we lived fairly close. We had met back at Oak Spring before Pine, AZ, where he was hiking a 30+ mile day to catch the rest of the hoard, having fallen a day behind. Conversation with Spielberg was easy, and miles flew by until one of us stopped for a break, and the other continued.
Just before dusk, I passed through Blue Ridge Campground. The Forest Service ran these campgrounds, which were still closed for the season. I was surprised they had opened the pit toilets and supplied them with TOILET PAPER! The water had also been turned on. Forest Service Trail Magic.
There are a lot of these campgrounds up on the plateau. Most of them charge a fee, but many are not open when thru-hikers pass through for the season. If you time it right, they sometimes offer services like toilets and water before opening the campsites.
It was getting cold, and I spent too long in the warm pit toilet, so it was approaching dark as I exited and continued hiking. Many hikers stayed in the closed campgrounds, but I avoided places where people had easy access to roads, especially as a solo female hiker.
I hiked about a half mile before veering off into the ponderosas to set up camp for the night. As I was setting up, two other hikers passed me and yelled they were also with the hoard, and everyone was meeting about a mile further to camp by the road and grill out. I later learned another group member had stopped hiking and supported the Nailz hoard for about a week until he returned home.
Although the thought of food almost persuaded me to keep hiking, the thought of camping by a road with a large group of people I did not know all that well made me pause. My tarp tent was already pitched, and I had a stellar campsite on soft pine needles. I also had one of my favorite dehydrated Stowaway Gourmet meals for dinner. I waved, yelled thanks, and continued setting up. I would probably see them tomorrow.
As I sat eating dinner in the opening of my tent, I saw three elk staring at me through the trees. I was surprised at how close they were to my tent, but maybe it was because it was almost dark. They did not stay long, and I watched as they turned silently and trotted off into the forest.
These long-distance hikes are about the moments. There have been so many times that I’ve found myself sinking into the pounding out of miles day after day, and then a moment happens – wildlife, a stunning sunset, meeting people that make you laugh, unexpected trail magic, and I remember why I love these trails so much.
You may hike for days before experiencing a moment, but that moment will stay with you for years, completely alter the course of your life, or sometimes bring people into your life who become friends for a lifetime. The moments here are real, not clouded by society, expectations, or noise. The moments on the trails are tiny glimpses of joy, not clouded with life, and probably why many thru-hikers never want the journeys to end.