Gentle breathing slowly pulled me from a deep sleep, and I opened my eyes to large dark eyes staring down into my shelter. I had slept a little later than usual, and the cows had started their patrols.
These western hikes, more than any others, have taught me that cows are naturally curious animals. How dumb can they be if they are so interested in life around them?
Packing quickly, I scrambled back up to the road before early morning traffic picked up and the vagrant was spotted slinking out of the brush. Most ranchers did not seem to mind a few hikers on the land as long as we did not bother the cows or contaminate the water, and I always tried to be a discreet, pleasant steward.
After returning to a rutted, rocky ATV road, I came to Babbitt Lake. Water had become much more scarce, so I had begun taking advantage of different sources and tried to always keep two liters on me most of the time. Two liters in these temperatures and terrain would usually carry me about 20 miles before I had to find more water.
The mud around Babbit looked solid as I slowly inched out towards the water, but as I stepped forward, my foot broke through the crust and sunk halfway up my calf. “Crap!” I yelled as I pitched forward, losing my balance and encasing my other foot in the soft wet concrete. I tried to turn, lost my balance, and sat back on my butt with my hands sinking into the muck. I was now covered in the stinking, cow crap mud and thoroughly disgusted.
This whole process happened not once but twice as I tried to get to the cow water, and there was no point in going back since I was so close, so I slogged on through the mud, filtered two liters, and then lurched and stumbled back to solid ground. I was mostly just glad that nobody had seen me. I later learned that Nailz Hoard had been just minutes behind me, which would have been humiliating!
The roads were very rocky, and my feet were sore from the previous day’s road walking, so I did not make a great time, and it was not long before Spielberg came up behind me. I always enjoyed chatting with him and time flew by more quickly as we chattered a half mile past our turn-off before realizing we saw no footprints in the dry, dusty soil and turning around.
Spielberg stopped for a break, and I continued finding Nailz taking a break past the next fence crossing. She had passed when we went the wrong way and was waiting on her group. I got the impression she was a much faster hiker, but there was not much point in getting too far ahead since they all camped together. Nailz was young and quiet, and when she whizzed past me, I occasionally got a hand in acknowledgment, but today we chatted for a minute or two before I hiked on, and she continued to wait.
The rest of the day was spent on rocky roads and trails as I entered the Kaibab National Forest. The winds were pretty constant, and water was always front of mind. There were a couple of cow tanks and a wildlife tank, and in these cases, I always chose the wildlife tanks since they were much more reliable and the water was usually much cleaner than the cow’s water.
Spielberg was ahead of me, and I saw him take the first junction to the tank. This would allow him to loop down to the tank and continue following that road until it rejoined the AZT about two miles further up the trail. I chose to hike to the next junction, hike a half mile down to the wildlife tank, and then back to the same junction.
When I reached the wildlife tank, I sat down on the concrete cistern and began filtering. The Hoard was over under an oak tree, spread out and taking a break. They noticed me and waved, but I did not join them. They were a tight group, and I always felt a little like I was intruding, so I waved back and smiled before hiking back up to the trail.
As I hiked in and out of ravines and valleys over the afternoon, I leap-frogged with the Hoard, occasionally stopping to chat. The ground grew even rockier, so by about 6 PM, I was ready to stop for the day and began looking for a place to camp that was not completely covered in small, sharp rocks.
Rounding a turn, I was surprised to see Nailz had set up her tent. As I walked up, she announced she was tired and had decided to stop for the day. The road walking and rocks on this trail can take a toll, and we commiserated before I told her I was going to camp a little further down.
There were a couple of large oaks about a couple of hundred yards further down, and I set up camp amidst what appeared to have been a very old settlement with rusted cans and pieces of tools. I always wondered about the people that had carved out homes in this bleak landscape. Was there even enough water and raw materials to sustain yourself out here permanently?
Before long, Spielberg arrived and set up his tarptent about 50 yards past me, and then Nailz’s brother and girlfriend set up their shelter about 100 yards before me. I was now in the middle of a group and camping with the first people since Cricket.
Since I was in the middle of the group, I became the gathering point for the evening, and everyone began wandering over with their dinners and stoves. They formed a semi-circle around the tent, with everyone making meals and chatting. They were an interesting group, and since I was new, most of the conversation revolved around getting to know each other questions or asking about hiking backgrounds and gear. This is usually the case with hikers – what trails have you carried, what equipment do you use – pros and cons.
This went on for about an hour before we all wandered back to our tents and tarps, and everyone was asleep by dark.
I enjoy hiking solo, but it is sometimes nice to camp near other hikers if the timing works. That would be one of the last times I would see the Hoard, although we did end up finishing the trail on the same day.