April 28, 2022
My little space in the trees seemed home to the area’s Elk. All night, the creatures visited me as they arrived home to find a human had taken over their retreat. I could hear their clopping feet pass by, and the following day I found a well-worn trail about five yards into the trees beyond where I had slept. I also had to clear dried Elk poo out of the way to set up my shelter.
My temperature sensor read 34 when I finally forced myself out from under my quilt and began dressing and packing up. Cold mornings were brutal for me, and I always managed to do just about everything wrapped in my quilt before I stuffed it into my backpack and charged out of the tarp tent to take it down quickly and jam it into the outside pocket of my backpack. Stripping off my puffy to pack it in with the quilt was the most brutal act of the morning, and I grimaced as icy wind sliced through my fleece.
I hefted my backpack and started jogging down the AZT. The pack was heavy just leaving town, but the cold was a powerful motivator for someone raised in the south, and I moved quickly, stumbling along the narrow trail as my legs slowly began to warm up.
The single track did not last long as I hiked down off Humboldt, but the cold winds rolling down the mountain seemed to follow me all day as I walked down and across the plateau. I did not take my fleece off until the late afternoon, and that was not for very long since temperatures dropped again with the sun.
The views of Humboldt mountain were beautiful as it slowly shrunk behind me. Whether hiking south or north on the Arizona Trail, this mountain was symbolic. It was a massive gatekeeper on the horizon and represented a significant marker along the trail. Hikers had reached Flagstaff, and if headed south, they were approaching the desert in the not-too-distant future. If headed north, the Gem of the trail was also not much further – the Grand Canyon.
Dirt roads are never my favorite tread to hike on, and it was not long before I left the mountain to begin this feet pounding walking. The well-worn dirt roads were not bad, but the lesser-used ATV trucks were littered with small sharp rocks and made my feet and ankles sore. As a result, I stopped more frequently with my heavy pack until I reached the roads frequented by ranch traffic out on the plateau itself.
There was very little traffic as I hiked down the roads, but later in the afternoon, I saw a distant dust plume, and I watched a silver pickup approach and slow as it reached me. The older gentleman in his faded baseball cap smiled as he leaned out the window with something in his hand. As the truck rolled closer, I saw a little Debbie snack cake and reached out to take it, grinning back at him. Neither of us immediately spoke, but I understood that he was familiar with hikers along this route.
Finally, he nodded slightly and asked if I wanted a beer. I was in the West, where water was often substituted with Budweiser, Bud Light, etc. I politely said no and asked if he had water, which he did not, and then he told me to have a good walk and slowly rolled away with a smile: trail magic – the best kind.
I spent most of the afternoon on dirt roads, and water was scarce. My maps showed the Cedar Ranch Trailhead had a bear box, but I quit depending on and using most water caches years ago. Unfortunately, this means that I was primarily stuck with cow ponds on this trail.
About a half mile off the road was East Cedar Tank, so I reached the junction and began climbing up to what appeared to be a spring-fed cow “tank.” The water was crystal clear and emerald green from the algae growing in the metal tank. I filtered my water and ended up sitting for almost an hour looking out over the valley. This was a beautiful spot to break from the feet punishing dirt roads.
Of course, Cedar Ranch Trailhead had about 10 gallons of unopened water, but I kept my spring water. When I leave town, I’ll often pour out my water and come to the first natural water source. Natural water tastes so much better than bottled water.
I continued along a more well-used dirt road, and several cars and trucks stopped to ask if I needed a ride somewhere. I’ve often found that people out West are more helpful and trusting of strangers, probably because there are fewer people and little to no homeless in these areas.
As the sun dropped, I began to look for places to camp. The land to either side of me was covered in large Manzanita bushes with cattle free ranging around them. I waited until there was no traffic and quickly scrambled down an embankment and into the Manzanita. I walked a few hundred yards until I found a cluster of bushes. I pushed into the middle of the bushes, out of sight of the road, and set up my shelter for the night after clearing out dried-up cow patties.
While eating dinner, I watched the sky darken into multiple blue, purple, and orange hues in the clear Arizona sky. Even in this barren landscape with no clouds, the sunsets were beautiful.