I left Flagstaff this afternoon under grey skies spitting rain. The AZT heads north through the city to Buffalo Park, passing a tribute sign to Dale Shewalter (founder of the Arizona trail) before the Oldham Trail junction. In my logbook entry, I wrote ‘I don’t know’ under the date column, because I didn’t want to get out my phone to check. It then occurred to me that these logbooks have an actual purpose, and that kind of entry is probably frowned upon.
I began to regret not leaving Flagstaff earlier since there was plenty of traffic on the trail and I still felt like I was in the city by the time I wanted to make camp. Maybe I still was in the city, who knows. It was an ambiguous forested area. The traffic was mostly bikers, but I also met some men who were out for a hike. One of them asked whether I was on a pack training exercise. When I said that I was hiking the Arizona Trail, he said ‘Really?’. No, not really. I just find it comical to tell people that I’m hiking the AZT when I’m not. He wished me a good hike, but still looked skeptical. Hey, I’ve walked 600 miles! Are you doubting me because of the dorky hat?
I waited until dark before pitching my tent a short distance from the trail. I can hear cars. Am I in a park?
Being in Flagstaff felt odd after walking through so many small towns. Hey, these bus-things are transporting me places for a minimal fee. Neat. I took a photo of two huge grocery stores right next to each other… then later deleted it in acknowledgement of the fact that such pictures are why I never have room on my phone for photos of actual scenery.
Other than the usual town chores, I wanted to purchase new socks to replace a holey pair and also a new shirt because I’m blasted sick of this one. I don’t know how you can like something when you first get it, then hate it with a fiery passion only a few months later… but a certain percentage of married couples could probably tell you. I tried a gear store named Peace Surplus. They had a great selection of Osprey packs. It was the first time I had seen the Exos in a store (would highly recommend the Exos, by the way). I wasn’t looking for a second pack though, for I have not yet located a neighbourhood child to be my trail servant. I didn’t find a shirt I liked, but I found the socks and chose a pair that the company promises to replace if you wear them out. I see infinite socks in my hiking future! I’m putting my old socks in my bounce box and taking them back to Canada with me. Yes, I also see crazy hoarder cat lady in my future.
My tent was covered with frost this morning. Ahh, another lovely brisk day in northern Arizona! The chill was especially welcome since I only had 100 ml of water left, and in Arizona you’re out of water when you have 100 ml. You just saved a piddling amount of water to tell yourself that you’re not out of water when you’re actually already thirsty and want to drink it. There are, however, far worse places to be low on water than on heavily trodden trails just outside of Flagstaff. I think I’ll live another day.
I started walking at 7:00 AM, early enough to avoid being seen by any disapproving trail runners. The temperature was hot by 9:00 AM – hey, don’t be a southern Arizona, northern Arizona – so I nixed my plan to visit Fisher Point before entering Flagstaff.
Following the AZT along Walnut Canyon, I arrived at the urban trail junction, where a sign reading ‘Trail not regularly maintained. Use at your own risk’ marked the entrance to the nice dirt track. I think I’ll risk it.
After a jaunt through the forest with a few ups and downs, the trail emerged into the city by a pond. A sign warned against using the water. Who would bother with Flagstaff right there?
I found a cheap motel near the AZT route. Flagstaff has hostels, but the private rooms in the hostels are actually more expensive than a budget motel, and I didn’t want to stay in a dorm with only my underwear to sleep in. Beside one of the motel doors, a sign read ‘Keep this gate closed’. Have I discovered a secret AZT route, or is a sardonic employee implying that tourists are like cattle? I don’t know which possibility is more fun.
At the front desk, a young, lovey couple were ahead of me in line. I felt jealous – I wish that I had someone to split my bill with. Then he could sleep in a corner or something. The couple had just completed a hike in the Grand Canyon and the guy bragged for awhile to the front desk employee about how hard it had been; later I encountered him again in the hallway and he bragged some more. I mentioned that I would be at the Grand Canyon in about a week. He asked which trail I was going to hike. Umm… I don’t actually know which one(s) the AZT uses, so I just said that I was hiking the Arizona Trail. He said ‘I don’t know where the Arizona Trail is, but I’m sure it’s easier than the hike I did’.
I continued along the mesa in the morning. Nice views of Upper Lake Mary.
The trail passed a wetland that hikers are asked not to camp by, and a cool observatory, and Marshall Lake. I saw a pile of tape, then a hose, then burn areas that looked fresh. Marshall Lake had nice campsites, but they were occupied by cars that had apparently been left there to claim the spots. I should have camped beside one, then said ‘oh, I don’t mind that your car is here’ when the owners arrived (admittedly more obnoxious than leaving a car in a campsite).
A ton of trail runners passed today. They were like flies coming out of the woodwork, which is a gross saying if you actually visualize flies coming out of the woodwork.
The scenery has reverted to forest, but the absence of cow dung improves it. I stopped early for the day, selecting a camping spot above a canyon, but didn’t pitch my tent until after dark because of the trail runners. There were climbers in the canyon as well. Nice to see so many people enjoying their Saturday outside.
I felt better after yesterday’s conversation with Larry, and ready to tackle the forest again after retrieving my package from the post office. Why did I choose to resupply so soon before Flagstaff? Well, um, I estimated the distance between Mormon Lake Village and Flagstaff based on the map… and estimated wrong. Ridiculous and I have no excuse. The post office is a living antique and I recommend visiting if you’re passing through the village between 9:00 AM and 1:00 PM. The employee mentioned that she was glad I was accounted for. Yes, I mailed that package ages ago and wrote no arrival date because I wasn’t sure how long the Mazatzals would take. Sorry!
The closure detour used the main road, turning when it reached the third road to the left. I walked to its junction with the AZT and everything was peaches once more, except for the continuing forest.
At least variety was introduced in the form of hills, and eventually the trail met and followed an old logging railroad. Then a climb onto a mesa, and… a field with sparse trees replaced the forest! I was considering camping at a nearby trailhead (I’ve learned that they make good camping spots along these passages) but the weather was unpleasantly windy, so I started along the dirt road running across the mesa.
A clear morning sky had become cloudy and ominous in three directions. Fields always look great on cloudy days, much better than they do in the sunshine, and this one was beautiful. It reminded me of the work of a 17th century Dutch landscape painter whose name I can’t recall… Jan Van Eyck keeps coming to mind, but he was not 17th century, Dutch or a landscape painter, so I’m guessing it’s not him. Anyway, here’s a comparison between a picture I took of the mesa and a Jacob van Ruisdael painting.
Heading north/northwest, the AZT passed Horse Tank and Horse Lake, both of which contained plenty of water (are you wondering where this sudden geographical detail is coming from? I’m writing this entry on my map, ho ho). A potential campsite near the tank was windy too, so I kept walking until Horse Lake, which a few cows were hanging around. They didn’t seem scared and didn’t run, just stared at me as I walked past. I found a non-horrible camping spot and made camp as the sun was setting.
I didn’t hear the coyote last night. It was probably at the Shangri-La, fleeing security guards while angrily wondering where I was.
Day four of the forest hike was not a good day: 1. It was day four of hiking through the same scenery on the same flat ground; 2. I arrived at the junction with road 219 to find a sign reading ‘This trail temporarily closed. Forest stewardship in progress’. No information about time, dates, extent of closure or the nature of forest stewardship. I looked at my map and concluded that I ought to walk down 219 to get to Mormon Lake Village. As I was plodding dejectedly uphill from the junction, it started raining on me…
I got to the village and walked to the post office, which was easy to find since there’s only one main street. I arrived at 1:07 PM to find that it had closed at 1:00 PM…
My pants haven’t fit properly since week one… my thermarest was floppy this morning and might have finally gotten a hole in the forest… my new credit card ended up at a Fed-Ex office in Flagstaff instead of the post office and will only be held until Monday…
I didn’t want another night of camping. I went to the lodge three doors down from the post office and requested their cheapest room, which was $65. The only electrical outlet was above the sink in the bathroom, which was funny since the bedroom had an alarm clock but it wasn’t on because there was nowhere to plug it in. I guess you have to move it to the bathroom counter. When I consulted the woman at reception about the trail closure, she summoned Larry, a former director of the ATA, and he showed me a map of the closure. The same map was hanging on the wall outside – silly me. He said that he had heard of me, but the situation didn’t sound familiar (it was some issue with a crew on Four Peaks and water, and while I did meet a crew on Four Peaks, I wasn’t having any water issues… hmm…), so maybe it was another hiker in the young and female category. As for the closure, it’s for logging and the section of forest surrounding the Navajo Springs trail beyond the sign was cleared last year, so I could have taken the trail down to the village. I suppose that’s why we oughtn’t bolt signs to trees: so that they can easily be moved.
Larry took me for a drive along the trail reroute and then to dinner and picking-up-my-credit-card in Flagstaff. He’s a lovely fellow and interesting as well; he was with the ATA in its early days and had lots of stories. For example, some landowners didn’t want the trail being built near their property because they thought that hikers would break into their houses and steal things. They went as far as taking it to court, and lost. Larry asked numerous questions about my gear, including whether I carried extra pants and shirt (no). He said that it was unusual for a woman not to be more concerned about clean clothing, which made me laugh. Another set of clothing would only double how long I can stay clean in dusty Arizona, giving me a total cleanliness time of six minutes.
He also asked whether I had met the four horsemen (but he used the term ‘cowboys’). I said no, but that I wanted to. Then he told me that they were already past Flagstaff! They must have passed me when I was in Pine. Too bad…
Another day of forest. At least the wind was light today, and there was no rain, but I’m bloody sick of this forest. The golf course scenery is gone, replaced by endless in-between land and rocks. It’s always flat. It’s never pretty. There’s never anything different to look at. It almost makes me believe in a kind of pagan hell where we’re all assigned wittily suitable punishments, and this is mine.
The hiker in front of me hasn’t been closing the two wire loop gates properly – he/she often doesn’t put the post in the bottom loop. The first few were hard but I could fix the third gate, and if I’m strong enough to do it, anyone over the age of ten is strong enough (and probably some well-built five-year-olds). Someone cashed three jugs of water along this stretch but, instead of packing the empties out, attached one jug to a branch and left a tiny amount of water in the others so they wouldn’t blow away. It’s just a plastic jug; how much do you have to care about pack weight not to pack it out?
I was in a bad mood by the time I began scanning the forest for a tolerable campsite (can you tell?). I kept thinking about southern Arizona, and all the gorgeous camping spots I had there, and then nearly stepping in cow dung, and thinking about how tomorrow I would still be wasting my time walking through this forest.
While I was cooking supper, I saw a coyote a few dozen metres away. Not a dingo after all, eh? I stood up and said the first thing that came to mind in a loud, firm voice: ‘NO. NOT HERE’. Huh? Where then? The Shangri-La? La Alhambra? Grandmother’s house? I think that my brain was working along the lines of ‘I hate this place already, so don’t make it worse, you little pissant’. The coyote ran away. The sighting was actually a nice end to the day since I had never seen a coyote before. It wasn’t really a pissant… sorry, coyote…
Today the AZT followed dirt roads through the forest with swarms of locusts buzzing around. My brain did the calculations: Locusts = plague of locusts, four cowboys = four horsemen. Clearly the apocalypse has begun. I considered writing a novel about a hiker who misses a plague and the mass death of all humanity because she’s in the wilderness, hiking the AZT. ‘Huh, it appears that everyone in Flagstaff is dead… well, that happens.’ The story would seem to be a dark comedy, but would actually be a poignant, tragic examination of the randomness of life as demonstrated by the survival of an idiot during the mass death of the intelligentsia (along with people who built bomb shelters in their backyards and wore tinfoil hats).
Forest, forest, more forest. Give me something different please, even if it’s just a hill rather than the flat and endless roads. I was bored and getting silly. I saw a flash of gold in the forest and thought ‘what if it’s the golden bough?’ and went to see what it was: a cluster of yellow leaves. I considered writing a novel about a hiker who finds the golden bough on the AZT. It would appear to be a charming urban fantasy, but would actually be a poignant, tragic examination of the faults in rulership via inheritance.
It’s a wonder that I didn’t get lost today. Is anyone now wondering in which way this journal is poignant and tragic? Man, I hope I don’t die.
Finding a camping spot was a struggle again. There’s nowhere tempting here and lots of cow droppings.
It rained. ‘Welcome!’ says the Colorado Plateau in a chipper tone. Yeah, well, I can make rude gestures too. My weather report hadn’t forecast rain, but when in Pine I overheard someone in a restaurant talking about potential rain today and tomorrow. Do you ever find yourself wishing that your weather report is more reliable than a random restaurant patron? After drying my tent, I began walking beneath behemoth clouds that wheeled dizzily across the sky in the crazy wind. I think that Arizona has an all-or-nothing deal with the atmosphere.
The remainder of the canyon was scenic, but then the trail transitioned into forest-ish country that resembled a combination of a golf course and the area between a campground and a highway that people step on until there’s nothing left but dirt and pine needles and scraggy grass.
Plants, bushes and flowers were outnumbered by piles of cow and elk dung, though I did see a beautiful iris. A few sections were more interesting and reminiscent of my AZT experience thus far, mainly because they were rocky. The rocks were tinged blue and the surrounding grass was almost white, creating an otherwordly colour scheme.
Ultimately, there was drizzle during the day but no hard rain. I had trouble finding a tolerable campsite. As I was arranging my gear in my tent, I heard a noise from directly outside like a whining dog. It fit a trend: yesterday I heard howling, and the day before that I heard barking coming from uphill (at the time, I assumed there was another trail up there and someone was walking their dog). What is it? Coyote? Feral dog? Go away, dingo! There are no babies for you here!!!
Today I hiked up onto the plateau, with pretty morning scenery ending in a disappointing viewless climb alongside a power line. That may be a first for the AZT, which thus far has been very open. I considered walking along a road running parallel to the edge of the rim until I could see something, but the day was wearing on and I wanted to find a good campsite along General Springs Canyon. The canyon hiking turned out to be easy, so I regret not trying the road.
Near a cabin I saw two men heading off towards the trees. One of them was wearing a huge pack and looked to be suffering – his gait was the ‘Krista with ten days of food in the Mazatzals’ gait. In the cabin logbook, someone had written ‘Amazing waterfall at 2.5’, so I decided to camp nearby. The creek was flowing strongly with cloudy water. The waterfall was not exactly amazing, but worthy of mild admiration on a trail with so little water.
I’m excited to be leaving Pine today as herein begins my hike up the Mogollon Rim onto the Colorado Plateau! ‘Mogollon’ is pronounced something like ‘Mow-gi-on’, for those people who are, like me, tempted to pronounce it ‘Mow-go-lawn’ or ‘Mongolian’. Temperatures on the plateau will be cooler than those in southern Arizona, and I need cooler temperatures. I was having trouble sleeping because of the heat in the last few days before Pine, and would probably have dropped dead when hiking if not for my umbrella. Then some rangers would have found me and said ‘There goes another Canadian’ and exchanged a creepy smile.
So the excitement level was high. The scenery was pretty but nothing special, just forest walking with distant views of the Mogollon Rim. For the entire day the AZT followed the Highline Trail, which was well marked with white diamonds. Nonetheless, I took a wrong turn at a junction and walked three kilometres in the wrong direction before realizing that it was wrong. Wait, you mean that I can get lost when I’m not in the Mazatzals?
Tents were pitched at Weber Creek, which was flowing well.
Nearby I tried to rescue a caterpillar being attacked by ants by transferring it to a plant, but it looked half-dead already. After collecting water, I continued up the slope until I found a nice campsite.
I set up my tent in THAT Brewery’s beach volleyball court last night, my logic being ‘sand = comfortable’ and ‘there are no other stellar spots’. Unfortunately, in the middle of the night (at this point you may be asking yourself, ‘why does so much happen in the middle of the night in this journal? Can’t this person just go to bed like a normal human being?’ Yes, I ask myself that too) the crazy wind started up again and tore out all my tent stakes. This is getting old, wind. Without food or water I didn’t have many heavy items to line my tent with, and it was suffering. Finally I got out of the tent, lifted it up, rotated it so it was in an aerodynamic position, and got in again. Somehow I fell asleep immediately. The power of exhaustion.
The temperature was -4 degrees Celsius when I woke up. Packing up early because of the ‘in volleyball court’ aspect of this tale, I found myself with nothing to do at 6:00 AM. Luckily for me, the market in Pine has surprisingly long hours, so I decided to start my town chores early. The ATA website classifies the market as a good resupply location for a small town, but it was lacking many of the foods that I pack, like energy bars, oatmeal packets, Nutella… I may have overcompensated with too many snacks. The question of whether or not there can be such a thing as too much trail mix may have been answered today.
Running into Hardcore at the post office, I was glad to be able to give him a proper goodbye before he left Pine. He’s a friendly guy and I had the opportunity to speak to him for a few hours yesterday. He revealed that Link is actually named Lint (boooo) and Backpacker Guy is actually Backpack Guy. Oops. I got a lot wrong from that conversation with Backpack Guy, but moving on from my apparent lack of ability to hear, Hardcore didn’t know what a Kinder’s Surprise is. For Americans visiting Canada, you should try one (just don’t choke on the toy). And Saskatoon berry pie. And poutine of course. Anyway, acknowledging that this entry has gotten sidetracked…
Hardcore told me that four cowboys are coming up the trail with a group of horses, making a documentary about their journey from Mexico to Canada over a combination of trails. Furthermore, I received an email from John this afternoon mentioning that they’re all about my age and good looking (now why would that be relevant, John…?). Far be it for me to say that I DON’T want to meet four hot young cowboys, but sadly I came here to hike the AZT, not meet cowboys, so I’d rather they stay behind me for awhile. Horses = dung.
I had been planning to relax this morning and start walking late since I was only six kilometres from Pine, but the Churchill wind returned with a vengeance last night. A partially mesh tent always seems like a good idea until cold air is seeping through the walls while the fly flaps furiously and you’re cranky because it’s very early and you’ve gotten very little sleep. So I got on the trail early, and what a nice trail it was! Relatively smooth and well marked, as if to say ‘I know that you’re getting close to Internet access, so I’m going to shape up so you don’t whine about bad trail conditions on Trailjournals’. Too bad, trail! The entries are already written. Near the trailhead I encountered a woman walking her dog. I said hi. She said ‘It’s nice to see someone else on the – SHUT UP!’, the ‘shut up’ being directed at her dog, which was being rowdy, and then she walked away. I admire succinctness in a person.
When I got to town, I went to THAT Brewery and asked about accommodation. They had no vacancies because another hiker had decided to extend his stay, but the owner offered to let me camp on the lawn and have the cabin when it becomes free tomorrow. The other hiker, who turned out to be Hardcore (also on Trailjournals), then showed up and offered me the use of his shower. Let me at that nice free lawn! Hardcore was interested in the status of my air mattress, which I had wisely bought to replace my foam mattress in preparation for hiking somewhere with cacti. It’s still intact! He was also wondering why there was a pine cone attached to my pack. ‘Oh, that’s just Piney.’ ‘I… see…’
I love mesas, there’s something awesome about a mountain with a flat top upon which you can stroll and camp anywhere, therefore I woke up in a good mood today, looking forward to the trail. Whiterock Mesa has pretty white stone and shade, and rocks that look like dinosaur bones, and camping + lack of sunburn + dinosaurs is an epic combination.
While digging a cathole, I dug up a tiny scorpion. Aw, give me a break. Also yikes, a scorpion. Well-positioned and easy to follow cairns marked one long climb directly up a rocky slope, then the trail met a road at the beginning of Passage 26.
When loading data points into my GPS, I had missed those for Passage 26. I had trepidation about hiking without GPS, not because I thought I would need it for this passage mostly on roads, but because I’ve gotten used to having it. It’s my blankie, and you never mess with the blankie. It couldn’t be helped though, so I started off down the first road, which was dull but easy walking. The power line road was more like a trail than a road, rocky and uneven and ill-defined. Someone with a grudge against shade had butchered all the trees on either side. I was glad when the trail veered away into the forest.
I camped at Oak Spring. It had plenty of water, but somehow felt exposed and too close to civilization.
A bland section of trail followed Brush Springs. I kept missing the turns on a set of switchbacks, then running into dense walls of shrubbery and realizing when I backtracked that I had stepped over a lilliputian wall of sticks or stones meant as a sign to stop. I reached LF Ranch around noon, much too early to justify spending the night for a shower, and continued down the trail to the East Verde River, a clear and pretty watercourse nothing like the Gila.
I had been planning to collect water at Polk Spring, but it looked like a stock pond and I wasn’t tempted with other sources nearby, so I continued the climb towards Whiterock Spring. During the ascent I hit a snag. While following a double-track road, the AZT reached a cairn beside a single-track path. I headed down the single-track, but it soon became indistinct and I couldn’t find the trail. I started getting frustrated and worried about water, since the most recent info on Whiterock Spring in the water report described it as a trickle and the report was outdated. The next water source was too far away to access before dark. I started thinking things like ‘If I get to the spring and there’s no water there, I can slackpack 6 km back to the river and then back to my pack’, then I realized the stupidity of that notion. I was still only ~1.5 km from the river, so better to backtrack immediately. I didn’t even slackpack because I thought I might camp at Polk Spring, or even stay at LF Ranch and get an early start tomorrow. Ultimately the heat made the decision for me. The temperature had been excruciating throughout the day but cooled by the time I was done filtering water at the river, and the past few days were so bloody hot that I wanted to take advantage of any cooler conditions. I motored back up the slope to the cairn where I had gotten confused before.
Back on the single-track. It disappeared again, I wandered again. I consulted my map. It looked like the trail followed the double-track. I decided that I would go up the double-track and locate the trail at the top of the slope. So I returned to the cairn… and, when looking up the road, I saw a second cairn. RAGE. Future hikers, ignore the cairn beside the single-track.
More cairns awaited me atop Polles Mesa. I followed a few, then lost them, then saw one that was concealed behind a tree from the NOBO perspective and felt RAGE again, and pulled my Passage 21 strategy of ignoring the AZT and heading in the direction I knew was proper. When next I located the trail, it was carved deeply into the dirt and easy to follow. I had no problems the rest of the way to Whiterock Spring, which was just a trickle in the mud. I hollowed out a pit in order to scoop water out without disturbing the bottom every time. The spring was a nice place to camp, with a flat spot beneath a huge tree graced by a tin of sardines. Best of all, there were no bugs! No tiny flies for the first time in days!
My scalp was itchy last night and I started worrying that I had lice caught from never washed hotel blankets. After combing my hair repeatedly, I reached the conclusion that I didn’t have lice but needed a shower immediately, and I decided to pull a long day and get to LF Ranch tonight. With energy and determination I set out. After three hours of rocky walking, I checked my GPS… I had completed 3 km/2 miles. NOOOOOO! I’m a slow hiker, but 3 km in 3 hours is absurdly slow. It’s the fault of the Trail Evil. My destination changed to Brush Springs, and my chances for a shower were gone. Easy come, easy go.
I was happy when the trail entered the lovely Red Hills. Along this section of the AZT much of the marking was done with old wooden trail signs, but the points of the arrows were sawed off – maybe the work of a highly dedicated vandal, or the ATA did it because somehow the signs were confusing people, or a concerned parents group thought that they looked too phallic. Whatever the case, I had no problems with navigation. Near the junction with the Brush Springs trail I encountered a group of trail workers clearing away overgrowth. I talked to two of them, one a woman who said that she wanted to hike the AZT, the other a man who mentioned that they had cleared the next seven miles. He used the term ‘only’ but that’s way more than enough to impress me! Unfortunately he must have been talking about the Mazatzal Divide Trail, which the AZT breaks away from after only a few km, because I began encountering overgrown patches again after the Brush Springs junction. Thru-hikers still to come are in luck though.
I wouldn’t recommend Brush Springs as a camping spot. Every flat area is crawling with ants, and they’re the type that want to crawl into your possessions. In general the place gives the impression that someone packed a picnic, decided they didn’t want the food, threw it all into the bushes, and voila! The ants of Brush Springs were born. I did however get to see a Scared Lizard eat a particularly big ant. Apparently the Scared Lizards aren’t so scared at night.
More dodgy trail in the morning. Before entering the Mazatzals, I had decided on two rules: I would check my GPS at regular intervals on any trail without clear signage, and I would remember to look at the scenery rather than studying my feet all the time. While following rule #2 today, I hit my head on a piece of deadfall above the trail. Ouch, my ank… head. I expertly assessed myself for concussion by recalling that I had hit my head harder when snowboarding and hadn’t gotten a concussion then.
The trail gradually improved until I reached Windsor Seep, which had a lovely camping spot with plenty of flat space and a great view of Mazatzal Peak. I collected water and continued on. The trail began a levelish traverse, becoming overgrown and degraded in areas. I took a break at a lookout to admire the amazing view. A clear trail was visible running along the ledge below and I initially wondered whether I was meant to climb down to it, but the AZT hasn’t been that kind of trail, so I looked around for cairns. The proper action was to head to the right and start down a series of switchbacks. I think that people must have gotten off trail there, because the switchbacks were obsessively marked with red tape every few metres in an ‘If you get lost, don’t @ me’ type of way.
I made camp at Horse Camp Seep. Downstream of the campsite, the water was flowing over a ledge into a tempting swimming hole, but my legs were cut and scratched from pushing through undergrowth and I thought that infection might be an issue. I settled for a sponge bath with treated water instead. Horse dung was scattered around the camping area and someone had tried to bury some of it… in the camping area. No. Just no. No one wants to pound their tent stakes into horse dung.
When I woke up today, I discovered that the wind had shifted and was now carrying the scent of horse dung directly to my tent. Yuck. I filtered water, packed up, studied the AZT sign, went in the wrong direction, returned to the sign, studied the sign, ignored the sign and got on my way.
For those unfamiliar with the AZT, I’m now hiking through the Mazatzal Mountains, which have suffered greatly from forest fires and are the place where most people who get lost on the AZT get lost. They’re notorious for being rocky, overgrown and all other kinds of trail evil. The segment from McFarland Canyon to the wilderness boundary was where I started to feel the evil, though I was less annoyed with the trail than with the fact that the cairns – the few there were – were uselessly positioned. If you don’t want people to get lost, build cairns at junctions rather than positioning them five minutes after the junction, and don’t position a cairn directly between two paths heading in different directions (though I acknowledge that navigation is ultimately the hiker’s responsibility, and only the hiker is to blame for getting lost).
Leaving the wilderness area was like waking from a bad dream. A short rocky segment was well-marked with cairns, then the trail was nice all the way to the junction with the Mazatzal Divide Trail. The junction was marked only by a cairn and red tape, no sign. And such a friendly trail it was for the first 6 km/4 miles or so, beginning with perfectly graded switchbacks up Mt. Peeley. I met two women from the Superstitions search and rescue team. One of them was happy, bubbly and admiring of my solo hike while the other stared at me with a shocked look and pointedly asked for my first name as if to say ‘I’ll be watching for it in the newspapers’. The other woman smoothed over the situation with that wonderful skill of completely ignoring what someone else is trying to get at. They continued on to the trailhead and I continued on along the AZT, which gradually worsened until a bad section around mile 5.5-5.7 where the trail was frighteningly eroded, rocky and overgrown. I remembered seeing something about a washout in the databook, so I checked and yes – this was it, listed as starting at 5.7. It made me feel better to know that it was notable and not something that I would be seeing frequently throughout the Mazatzals.
I made camp almost immediately after completing the dodgy section. The site was pretty, though it must have been prettier before the fire. Since the highway I’ve been plagued by tiny flies whose life purpose is apparently to ensure that I can never rest without being swarmed by tiny flies, but here I found a magic tree behind which they wouldn’t bother me. I also discovered that a pine cone was hitchhiking on my pack. I named it Piney and am going to take it with me. You know you’ve been too long without human companionship when…
After Sycamore Creek, the trail passed beneath the highway and began a gentle jaunt through the countryside. The air was hot and still, so I put up my umbrella. Two cowboys heading in the opposite direction gave me a polite ‘hello’ and ‘good morning’ (I was hoping they would say ‘howdy, miss’ or something more cinematic) and I felt silly to have an umbrella sticking up from my pack. Maybe they would want umbrellas too though if they were walking instead of riding horses.
Along this stretch were several distinct side trails, and at one point I got off-trail and ended up at a gap in a fence maybe ten metres from the AZT. Suddenly I heard bellowing and cows were bursting through, all big and heavy and ready to trample. I started shrieking; in recognition of the actual scariness of this situation, we won’t replace that with ‘yelped’. One cow crashed through the fence to avoid me. It was all very much like the movie ‘Australia’, except with ten cows rather than several hundred, and there was no cliff, and no one was talking in cool accents (so not at all like Australia). The cause of the commotion was a horse – unclear whether chasing the cows was what it had been tasked with or whether it was being naughty. Returning along the trail that I was still standing on, it stood in front of me until I moved out of its way. What a cheeky horse!
Thankfully that was the end of the cow incident and I got back on the AZT, which entered a burn area with a certain kind of prettiness: purple and reddish orange flowers grew against a backdrop of black and white trees. The trail was slightly rocky but not too bad.
I made camp at McFarland Canyon, which has a ridiculous number of horse droppings over most of the camping area. It also has mosquitoes, which is disappointing. I had heard that Arizona had mosquitoes but was hoping that was a lie made up by Utah.
FR422 had lovely views. Most of the best campsites were after Little Pine Flats, where they showed fewer signs of use and the scenery was most impressive.
The track began a long descent out of the mountains and into pastureland, where it adopted a policy of ‘path of most resistance’. The trail was extremely overgrown. If you’re hiking this section and on a nice footpath, you’re probably not on the AZT. You’re on an animal trail, or a trail made by a wise horse that was taken on the AZT but decided to make detours. If you lose the AZT, just head in the worst, most sadistic direction the path could possibly take, and you’ll probably be A-OK. Having trouble staying on the trail, I eventually concluded that there was no point in spending time trying to stay on a trail that was inferior to no trail at all, so I just set out along the river for awhile and met up with the AZT at a point where it was more clearly defined.
Just beyond the first gate, I saw a cow. A very masculine cow. Then the cow stood up… BULL. Luckily, it wasn’t cut out for Madrid and ran away whenever I got close. Unluckily for me, it kept running along the AZT so I wasn’t rid of it for awhile. Later on, I found myself following a trail of fresh cow droppings, an experience that I find thoroughly unpleasant because they’re always swarming with flies and I feel afraid that the flies will fly from the droppings to me and then maybe back to the droppings and then back to me and it would all be very traumatic. The trail of droppings ended at a gate beside a group of cows.
The gate was a two-loops-of-wire gate and I was having trouble getting it open. It occurred to me that closing the gate would probably be equally difficult, and the group of cows was standing right there, all hyped up and eager to escape if I were unable to close the diabolical gate (they looked bored and unaware of my angst). I ended up squeezing through the gap between the gate and gatepost. My pack I had to lift overtop and at one point it snagged on the barbed wire; I’m lucky this event didn’t end in a second category of traumatic experience.