So, decision time came and went and I decided to cancel this hike. The question of thru-hiking in 2020 has been debated so intensely that it’s garnered the long-distance community more attention than we’ve received since Wild (see the New York Times, Washington Post and this amusingly titled LAist article), so I feel no need to rehash all those points here. Suffice it to say that Saskatchewan is still asking residents not to travel out of province, and I want to respect that. I also have serious concerns about the logistics of hiking the GDT right now, namely how I would self-isolate for two weeks in one of its ultra-expensive trail towns if I did develop symptoms.
‘Bane, what are you doing in your spare time if you’re not planning for one of the hikes that you’ve already planned for and had to cancel?’ I’m glad you asked! I’ve veered in the strange and exciting new direction of packrafting, and can say that I’ve never felt more irritated trying to choose a piece of gear than when looking for a PFD. I’ve also been playing an old video game and taking pictures of scenes that remind me of the pandemic, and you can see them below!
Your apartment after weeks of lockdown:
Hoarding some more:
The battle for PPE:
Hitchhiking in the back of a truck since the driver doesn’t want your COVID-19 ass in the cabin:
The GDT uses a patchwork of shorter trails, some of which are well-maintained and popular and some of which are the complete opposite. In most of the parks, camping requires permits that may be of two varieties: 1) random camping permits for less popular trails/areas without maintained campgrounds; 2) campsite bookings for popular, high-traffic trails with maintained backcountry campgrounds (e.g. Skyline) or trails that limit campers to minimize the disturbance to wildlife (e.g. Maligne Pass).
Though I love random camping, I’m a big supporter of the permit system. Limiting campers and herding them into designated campsites, especially campsites with toilets, is the best way to minimize impact on the environment (especially delicate alpine environments) and wildlife. When I’ve walked through heavily used areas that allowed random and unlimited camping, they often featured catholes everywhere, ragged vegetation and absurdly located tents destroying the feeling of wilderness. If you hate permits, if you must be free to roam and camp wherever you like, there are many, many long trails other than the GDT for you, or perhaps you can identify alternate routes to skip areas requiring campsite reservations, or rush through them in one day. If I meet you on the GDT and you’re not making a good faith effort to obey camping regulations, I will not be friendly to you. I may report you to Parks Canada in an attempt to get you fined, taking pictures of you as you shout obscenities and try to shield your face. Yes, I am that person, whatchoo gonna do about it?
The good news is that the permit system is not some crazy, insurmountable obstacle to hiking the GDT. Most of the campgrounds open for reservations in January, and despite getting my permits for them almost two full months later in March, I was able to make it work with some flexibility. That was also my experience when I lived in the Rockies and spent some of my three-day weekends (thanks, awesome bosses) on the popular backcountry trails in Jasper and Banff. I obtained most of my permits last-minute, but always managed to get a stray campsite from a cancellation. I never got more than one along a trail, mind you, but the popular trails are well-maintained, which enables quick hiking.
Therefore, there’s certainly hope of obtaining last-minute permits and modifying your itinerary if you get slowed down. Logic tells us that giving yourself a reasonable itinerary that will absorb short delays is wise, and unless you’re trying to set a FKT, why would you complain about an extra zero here and there? I recommend checking out the sample itineraries put together by Dan Durston to aid hikers with their trip planning.
‘I hiked x miles per day on the PCT so I should be able to hike x km on the GDT’ may not serve you well as a tactic; hiking on a well-maintained trail requires vastly different amounts of time and energy than bushwhacking and route-finding, as I learned on the northern Heysen! Dan’s itineraries give a rough idea of where the trail may take more time than the distance would suggest, as well as providing information about how to obtain permits for each area.
More detailed information can be found in the recently updated (2018) guidebook by Dustin Lynx. It’s excellent and glossy and I feel sad at the thought of chopping it up to put into my resupply boxes. I’m also sad whenever I see the word ‘Greyhound’ in its transportation descriptions. At some point I’ll need to investigate how to actually get to Waterton.
Due to COVID-19 – my apologies to anyone hoping that I wouldn’t mention that word again until 2.5 months from now, that’s my intention as much as possible – permit bookings for the parks are now closed and will remain closed until at least May. I still have some permits to obtain, so I’ll be waiting for that email stating that reservations have re-opened, or I suppose the alternate grim email stating that the parks will be closed all summer and my reservations have been cancelled. Maybe Parks can use this opportunity to rebuild the bridge over the Athabasca on the Fortress Lake Trail? Just needed to squeeze that in somewhere~
How things change in just a few weeks! On the day that I cancelled my Grand Enchantment Trail hike, there were no confirmed COVID-19 cases in Sasky, none in New Mexico, and I believe eight in Arizona. Those three places still have a (comparatively) low number of cases, but numbers are ballooning elsewhere, millions of Americans have been ordered to stay in their homes, and Canada has closed its borders to all non-essential travel. I’ve gone from feeling bitter about the cancellation to feeling grateful that I didn’t fly to the U.S. and start my hike only to be forced to return home anyway.
It’s tough timing for thru-hikers. Along with the GET, northbound hikes of the Pacific Crest Trail, Arizona Trail, Appalachian Trail and Continental Divide Trail are begun in the spring, and many hikers had already started or were just about to start walking when the pandemic began escalating in the United States. ‘So what, it’s just a vacation that you have/had to cancel,’ you say? Thru-hiking, or any long-distance hiking spanning multiple months, is comparable to moving to a new city. You give up your job, you sell your house or end your lease, and you put your faith in the arrangements you made beforehand for new accommodations and work. But then you get to the new city, and uh oh – there’s nothing for you there after all, and you return to the old city but you have no job or home there either, and everyone else is losing their jobs and looking for work at the same time you are.
It seems like everyone is on edge nowadays. Not sitting in their closets and rocking back and forth on a big pile of toilet paper, but their emotional baseline is higher and they’re more easily agitated. That’s understandable considering that there are no good options for us now – we can steer the boat into one iceberg or a different iceberg in the other direction. I have no idea whether I’ll be able to hike the GDT this summer, but I’m going to maintain hope. That’s what we need to get us through these times.
Let me suggest a scenario. A seemingly normal human being opens his bathroom cupboard and methodically counts the eight rolls of toilet paper inside. He frowns. He drives to the supermarket. He fights another shopper for a cart. He rushes to the toilet paper aisle, bowling over several children on the way, and claws the last three packages of toilet paper into his cart, howling triumphantly when he successfully purchases 90 rolls. If this is you, GO SIT DOWN YOU’RE PART OF THE PROBLEM.
This is a strange time to be a thru-hiker (or any human being living in this world). The chance of actually contracting COVID-19 (I’ve added a hyperlink for future readers not seeing this word in the news every day) in North America is still low, but backpackers are feeling its impacts because suddenly everyone wants what we want. Hand sanitizer. Unappetizing dehydrated meals. Equally unappetizing rice to which more appetizing ingredients can be added. It’s like there’s a band and at one point you were the only fan and could always get tickets to their concerts, then some other fans came along and also bought tickets – fine, we’ll allow that – but then some other fans came along and started buying 200 tickets each due to irrational fears that they would lose 199 of those tickets, and then scalpers began buying huge chunks of tickets to resell at higher prices on eBay. Where does all this leave us? In a tragic state of irritated minds and unsanitary hands.
I won’t delve into the hoarding of toilet paper and bottled water, which fills me with equal portions of laughter and contempt. It’s the hand sanitizer that’s the problem, since washing your hands properly as a solo hiker without contaminating your water bottle is virtually impossible. I’m a germaphobe to start with, so my thoughts when I circulated around the stores in my city and failed to find any hand sanitizer for my Grand Enchantment Trail hike – there are zero cases of COVID-19 in this city or province, just in case you’re wondering – were grim. Luckily for me, my family came through. My mother found me 90 ml (3 oz) of Purell, which is extinct in the wild, and my sister’s partner found me an entire 950 ml (32 oz) bottle of foam sanitizer! The latter is tricky compared to gel since it needs to be used in a specific bottle to foam, otherwise it’s like pouring water over your hands, but I was able to order some 60 ml (2 oz) foamer bottles to repackage it in. The only problem is that a 60 ml foamer bottle is bigger than I thought it would be when looking at my empty 60 ml Purell bottle, so it doesn’t fit in a pants pocket well. It will live in my backpack hipbelt.
Now that I’m not hiking until July, my hand sanitizer situation is in flux. Maybe Amazon and eBay will crack down on reselling and individuals with 500 bottles will pause and reflect and think to themselves, ‘Do I really need 500 bottles of hand sanitizer and 8372 rolls of toilet paper?’, and in that case, I could purchase travel-friendly gel sanitizer.
A final word to the hoarders: if you’re going to stock up on pasta sides, please buy the ones with cheese. I don’t like those.
As a hiker I drift between extremes. Too much easy hiking provokes a mental backlash; too much difficult hiking provokes a different kind of mental backlash; they must be measured so that by the time I return to one or the other I’ve forgotten whatever boredom or frustration I was feeling before. After two years of LASHing the Pacific Crest Trail, about which I have no criticisms other than its mental ease in conditions not including dangerous snow or torrential fords, I find myself needing to drift in the opposite direction to get my blood hot and pumping again.
Up until a few days ago I was planning to spend this spring hiking the Grand Enchantment Trail, a route connecting Phoenix and Albuquerque. Often I think of the Heysen Trail as a route since there was so little actual trail, but the GET is a proper unmarked route that also has a generous amount of trail – according to the GET website, 56% of its length is trail. The rest consists of 4WD dirt roads (20%), 2WD dirt roads (11%), cross-country walking (11%) and paved roads (2%). Sounding fun yet? Unfortunately, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Canadian government issued a global ‘avoid non-essential travel’ advisory on Friday… one day before my flight to Phoenix.
I was of course wildly upset, but it is what it is. After trying to cancel my flights and travel insurance et cetera with varying degrees of success, I began researching Canadian hikes in search of a viable alternative. Canada has a lot of wilderness but not a lot of long hikes in the wilderness, so options were limited. I decided on the GDT starting in July (and possibly a warm-up for the GDT, but more on that later) because it’s a nice length, challenging, covers a gorgeous section of Canada, and has been on my bucket list for some time. Like the GET, the GDT uses a mix of established trail, roads and cross-country walking, and only a few areas have GDT signage.
The GDT is a gnarly trail and I would be lying if I said I had no concerns about it, particularly the fords. I trust my judgement though, and my amygdala which is the opposite of Alex Honnold’s, so… pretty sure I won’t die. I’ll try to update this journal often enough to avoid the ‘are you dead?’ emails.
Overland Track complete! I would recommend it to anyone in this part of the world, especially if you have a decent chunk of time to take advantage of side trip opportunities. The area is lovely and the trail less crowded than I thought it would be, probably because of a lucky pick of start date. If you have a flexible schedule, I recommend waiting to book and selecting a date with fewer people (or hiking in the off-season). Or maybe you’re a different personality type and want to zoom through the trail and party every night with a huge group of people. That’s cool too. Let’s be friends. But I keep strictly to hiker bedtime.
Some final comments:
1. Someone always snores in the huts. Always. If you’re alone in the hut, you’re snoring.
2. Often the trail is rocky to the point where you start questioning whether dirt exists. Choose your footwear accordingly.
3. If in need of entertainment, read the hut journals. Consider whether you really want to write awkward poetry in the hut journals.
4. If not planning to climb Mt. Ossa, consider camping at Frog Flats.
5. Order from the Lake St. Clair Lodge lunch menu, and don’t pay to camp there unless you would pay $25 for a shower and flush toilets.
6. If a German guy comes into the hut to get a cloth and a bottle of disinfectant and tells you it’s because he found animal **** at the edge of his tent platform, don’t laugh at him. Remember the disgustingness of camping amidst cow patties on the AZT. Remember and sob quietly.
I woke up, dried most of the condensation off my tent, ate the dodgy couscous for breakfast, mulled over the possibility that the dodgy couscous had already been cooked, and set off towards Narcissus Hut. I had decided pre-hike to take the ferry to Cynthia Bay instead of walking around the lake, doubting the scenery of a forest walk would be rewarding enough for more kilometres and more food weight with an aching foot. After eight days of hiking, the status of my foot has actually improved – the pain subsides with a certain stretch that I now do often, though I don’t know whether that’s treating the problem or a symptom of the problem. Maybe I should consult a physiotherapist with this new information. Or just chop off my foot! Wheee!
Forest walking. I arrived at Narcissus Hut around 1:30 PM, investigated the pier, returned to the hut and saw a sign stating that the minimum ferry charge is 240 AUD. With six or more hikers each hiker pays 40 AUD, but with fewer hikers the charge gets divided, so one person would pay 240 AUD and two people would pay 120 AUD and so on… and I was the only person waiting for the ferry. The booking website said $40, but maybe I missed the fine print.
Even if I had been willing to pay 240 AUD for a boat ride, which I wasn’t, I wasn’t carrying anywhere near that much money. The obvious solution was to walk out; the problem foiling the obvious solution was that my only food remaining was a few spoonfuls of peanut butter, a small amount of granola and gross cashews flavoured like everything else in my food bag. Not fancying another day on the trail with those provisions, I sat down outside Narcissus Hut and waited for more potential ferry-goers to arrive. Two hikers were arguing loudly inside the hut about something one had said about the other in front of other people and whether or not they felt the same way about completing the hike together and independence and so on. I have problems, they have problems, everyone has problems. Problem Hut.
The first hiker to arrive was a German woman who said that she was planning to take the ferry out, but not until the following morning. She kindly offered to share her food if I wanted to spend the night at Narcissus Hut, but I didn’t like that idea – I would have done the same in her situation and not considered it a big deal, but hikers shouldn’t have to bail out other hikers, and I wasn’t going to starve on what I had. The next hikers to arrive were three women who started considering whether to spend the night at Narcissus Hut or take the next ferry. I can do 60 AUD! I can do it! While they were considering, a fifth woman arrived. She was planning to hike out and offered me food if I wanted to do the same. I didn’t want to accept that offer either, but we ended up talking for awhile and she was a potential long-distance hiker, which was cool. Frequently I meet people who say it’s awesome that I hiked the AZT, but rarely do they mention wanting to do something similar.
The group decided to take the ferry, so I was saved. Two Parks employees joined us sans fare, and two tourists were already on the ferry, so we only had to pay $40 each. Despite some rain, I enjoyed the ride. The boat stopped at Echo Point for the tourists, and we all got out and looked around. The hut was dingy but there was a nice sandy beach with clear water. The guide(?) pointed out a tree with blossoms that taste like honey, and suggested that some of us taste them. I tried one (how hungry was I?) but it didn’t taste sweet at all. A ploy to trick tourists into eating plants…?
I ended up having supper with the ferry women, who were also interested in the Larapinta Trail. I had been warned about the food at the Lake St. Clair Lodge, but it was worse than I thought it would be. The menu after 5:00 PM is very limited (there’s also a ‘fine dining’ option) and tasted like fast food at a 800% markup. I bought a pizza off the lunch menu the next day though – there’s nowhere else to eat – and it was good, so if you eat at the lodge, go with the lunch menu/pizza. The German woman I had met at Narcissus Hut showed up at the restaurant after dark, having decided to hike out that day. She informed us about a free campground for hikers with no showers but also no fee. I was paying $25/night + coin shower, so I wasn’t happy about that, but it seemed an appropriate end to a muddled day.
It poured during the night and my tent floor soaked through below my air mattress. The sky still looked ominous in the morning, so rather than hanging up anything to dry, I propped up my mattress against the tent wall and hoped that everything would dry while I was gone (my tent would sooner commit seppuku than dry in the shade, but hope is healthy). Despite my puddle I was luckier than the campers beside me, who woke to a possum eating food that they had stored within their tent vestibule. ‘I thought the zipping sound was you unzipping your sleeping bag,’ said the wife to her husband. Nope. Beware the possums.
I was excited for the Labyrinth because I had read that it was beautiful (a good reason) and because it has a cool name (not a good reason). The trail there didn’t involve scrambling, but it was steep. Is that a waterfall, or is it the path? On this trail, it’s both! I was using a dry sack as a daypack again, and (while acknowledging that I wasn’t using it for its intended purpose) not only was it totally useless against wet leaves, but it developed small holes. I’m not impressed.
The Labyrinth had beautiful trees, beautiful lakes and ponds, beautiful views. The sky cleared while I was up there, so I was provided with both misty mountain views and clear blue sky mountain views. I didn’t explore much since my body informed me that it would need cheeseburgers for that, but I would have liked to.
I haven’t mentioned yet that I’ve eaten my extra food and also resorted to taking some odd-looking couscous from a free food box at Windy Ridge. Along with the couscous, there was mysterious brown powder and white powder/pale sticks that the Backgammon woman thought were powdered milk/bamboo shoots, but I wasn’t desperate enough to touch those.
Descending the trail was more difficult than ascending it. A man behind me fell on the waterfall section but didn’t hurt himself. Back at camp I found that my tent hadn’t dried at all, but friendly sunlight had emerged to help. I spent the evening eating my last dinner food aside from the dodgy couscous and listening enviously to other hikers describe their fancy dehydrated meals.
I left the Overland Track at the Pine Valley junction and walked to Pine Valley Hut, where I plan to spend two nights with a day trip to the Labyrinth. The walk was mostly flat, crossing suspension bridges through meadows and a mossy forest as silent as a crypt.
The trail was most scenic near the hut, where it ran alongside Cephissus Creek. I saw a white-lipped snake and heard what I hope was a ‘common froglet‘, since that’s the cutest name ever. On a related note, ‘common death adder‘ should not be a name. Common + death adder do not belong together.
The hut is average-sized and surrounded by normal campsites without tent platforms. The toilet was almost full and stank horribly. Two douchey locals were sitting in the hut when I arrived and having no interest in their asshattery, I pitched my tent despite expecting rain. Happily those men left and were replaced by a friendlier group of Aussies who for some reason assumed I was Swedish and asked me how to pronounce ‘Trangia’. I said ‘Trahn-gee-ah’, which was apparently wrong since there’s no ‘gee’ sound in Swedish. Fake Swede fail. One of the men recommended the Larapinta Trail. Sounds like a nice prospect for Australian winter.
A note in the hut indicated that it has mice and hikers shouldn’t leave food around. As I mentioned before, possums will steal human food (but not vegetables, according to an entry in one of the hut journals. Smart little buggers) and hikers normally store their food in the OT huts. Having once lived in a mouse-infested house though, I’m more afraid of mice than possums, though those particular mice may have become supermice from eating my vitamins. I decided to store my food in my tent in an opsak and hope for the best.
In an odd twist, one of the other hikers got lost while collecting water in the dark. When I heard him shouting, I thought that he might be a hiker from somewhere else who had gotten lost in the wilderness. It was reminiscent of that time I was sharing a hostel room with a woman who had night terrors (never again). In the end he saw the light from our headlamps and was able to make his way back to camp, so all was good. A few tense moments there though.
After breakfast I said goodbye to the Belgians, Ontario Guy and the French(Belgians?) who were planning to walk to Narcissus Hut. The French(Belgians?) pointed out that they were leaving earlier than I was. You win, get-up-early-kings. My quads felt like they had been skewered from descending Mt. Ossa. I thought ‘oh, maybe I should have trained for this’. Too late now.
The trail was entirely through forest today. I encountered the tour group with Tour Guide B at Du Cane Hut, then the Backgammon couple and a pair who thought that I had hiked the AT. And thus my legend grows (incorrectly). The OT is easy to follow and was usually distinct in this section despite the ground being covered in leaves, but I lost it once and had to backtrack to consult a directional marker. The Backgammon couple approached and the woman said ‘I just go where I think the trail should go’ and they headed off… in the wrong direction. If there’s no snow on the OT and you’ve been walking for two minutes without seeing a clear path, you’re probably not on it.
I hung back before the D’Alton/Fergusson waterfalls side trail, hoping to admire the falls in privacy. Naturally, everyone was still there when I arrived at the junction. We passed each other on the short but steep spur trails rather than at the waterfalls though, so I got some time alone. Fergusson was better than D’Alton.
Tour Guide A was at Hartnett Falls with his tour group, giving the ladies some fan service by bathing in the river. Excellent job, Tour Guide A! Keep it up! I think it must have been awkward for him to be the only almost naked person, though. Like he called ‘c’mon guys, join in’ and no one joined in. The tour group left and I spent some time at the falls. On my way back to the main trail, I went too far along the river and ascended an animal trail, but got back on course after backtracking.
Forest, forest, forest. I arrived at Bert Nichols Hut, which was huge, especially in proportion to the number of people there (six). We talked about TV, that thing I haven’t seen in a month. ‘Heartland‘ is the only Canadian television show the Backgammon couple know. For Australian shows, I only know ‘Please Like Me‘ and ‘I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here‘, which we agreed is terrible.
Coincidentally the French(Belgians?) and I both got up at 6:00 AM, making us the best of roommates – almost. One of them snored and had a comically loud air mattress. I once received a complaint about my Thermarest Neoair, but his mattress sounded like a thunderstorm. I have no idea what it was made of – possibly tin foil and packing peanuts.
Thinking the light would be best in the morning, my goal was to climb Mt. Ossa before noon. I left the hut first, but the French(Belgians?) soon passed me in the forest. We reunited at Pelion Gap, where the Mt. Ossa side trail begins, and while they discussed which items to carry up the mountain, I set to work constructing a daypack from a dry sack, my rain jacket and a piece of paracord. A trail maintenance worker arrived and asked what I was doing. I showed him and said ‘Isn’t it beautiful?’. He said ‘it will get you there and back’. Such a lukewarm reaction…
The Mt. Ossa trail began with a steep climb, then levelled out for awhile before changing to a mix of steep trail and scree. Trail markers with arrows offered some guidance through the scree. Near the summit I got off-course, confused by how a clear trail extended in one direction but an arrow pointed in another, and ended up scrambling up a rock shaft. I would normally have been scared, but on this occasion I was too filled with anger at Tour Guide A since he had told me the ascent was just a walk. I was just thinking ‘Screw you, Australian. Screwyouscrewyouscrewyouscrewyouetc.’. A few minutes after reaching the top of the shaft, I saw the other route. Well, whatever. Whatever forever. Continuing the slog, I encountered the French(Belgians?) descending. They told me the climb was worth it, which it definitely was! Clear, gorgeous views in all directions from the summit.
There were a few small ponds up there as well.
I stayed for about an hour before heading down, passing the Belgians, another pair who had made the same error as me with the route, and Ontario Guy. The trail wound through open and forested country to Kia Ora Hut.
I didn’t realize how knackered I was until I spent forty-five minutes pitching my tent and let my pot boil over twice while making one and a half dinners. The huts have journals where people can write random things and, as of March 2016, Kia Ora’s is the funniest. It includes a saga about possums being able to open the hut door (they steal human food if they can) and way too many entries by a guy named Jack trying to get a girlfriend on Facebook. Move it along, Jack.
At dusk yesterday I walked with the Belgians to Lake Windermere to look for platypuses, but none revealed themselves in the dim light. The night was chilly and my new sleeping bag overestimated, so I kept waking up to add layers. The stars were amazing in the clear sky though. The Belgians got cold as well and moved into the hut during the night. There’s an obvious lesson here: Tasmania, be warmer at night.
The weather remained good for my walk today: 16.75 km to Waterfall Valley. The trail offered nice views back to Barn Bluff and from the Forth Valley lookout, but it was absurdly rocky. I was glad to be wearing hiking boots!
The trail entered forest and descended to Frog Flats, where camping is permitted. It was a pleasant spot and I would have been tempted if tomorrow weren’t Mt. Ossa day. Passing more streams, the trail climbed to New Pelion Hut, a huge building with numerous bedrooms.
I wanted to get an early start the next morning, so I decided to stay in the hut. I ended up sharing a room with two men who are either French or Belgian. To elaborate, there are two new pairs of men, one pair is French and the other is Belgian, both speak French, I had spoken to the French pair in the dark by the rainwater tank and confirmed they were French but now can’t remember which pair they were. I’m going to call my roommates ‘the French(Belgians?)’ and just look around awkwardly if the other pair has to be mentioned. I learned how to play backgammon from an Australian couple who had packed in a full size set *sympathetic stare while taking advantage of their effort*. The woman is a grade one teacher. When I mentioned that preschool teacher was on a list I had seen of the top ten jobs least likely to be taken over by robots, she told me that her son is a robotics engineer. Score!
We all went to bed soon after sunset yesterday, but one man started talking to his hiking partner in the dark about Europe and train fares. I laughed silently. Eventually a woman asked him to stop and he said ‘what? We’re going to sleep already?’. No, we were lying in the quiet dark to mull over the terrible meaningless of our lives in the vast universe… oh, that was only me?
The day dawned with gorgeous weather and I left early. Not grappling with a tent saves a lot of time. The trail was mostly open with beautiful views.
I wanted to take a side trip to Lake Will, but mysteriously (since I was first to leave from our hut) ten backpacks were sitting at the junction when I arrived. Wanting some peace and quiet to enjoy Lake Will, I sat down to admire the view of Lake Holmes and wait.
I spotted a man lurking in a grove of trees nearby, looking at me. At first I thought he was afraid that I would steal something from his pack, but later concluded that he was probably hiding in the grove to pee. Anyway, Suspicious Guy soon emerged and wanted to trade some of the fudge in his trail mix for my chips. He was careful about not touching the chip bag or fudge. I think he had his hand in the trail mix bag before the exchange though… well, let’s ignore that. He said that he’s never seen a hiker with chips before. Hey, not only are chips delicious, but apparently they can get you fudge! He introduced himself as a tour guide and the people currently at Lake Will as his group. There was another guide too, so we’ll call Suspicious Guy ‘Tour Guide A’ (sorry). When I mentioned being wary about ascending Mt. Ossa since I don’t care for scrambling, he claimed that it’s basically just a walk up the mountain.
The tour group left and I continued to Lake Will, which is an easy walk from the junction: 1.5 km over flat land. Following the advice of Tour Guide A, I walked further around the lake to a second beach that was larger and had clearer water than the first.
After a lunch of sorts, I returned to the main track and maintained a strolling pace the rest of the way to large Lake Windermere.
I soaked my feet before continuing to Windermere Hut, where I decided to pitch my tent. Rather than having dirt tent pads, the OT has wooden platforms to which you need to affix your tent with metal wires (this site) or metal chains, which are easier to use. The Belgians had arrived earlier and basically set up my tent for me, so I can’t describe in detail how the metal wires are adjusted. My theory: magic. I got a great site with a view of Barn Bluff.
Last night was the worst I’ve ever spent on a trail, and not because of the cow droppings. I slept for three hours, then lay awake for three and a half hours in the cold, then put on my rain jacket and managed to sleep for another three hours in one hour intervals. My sleeping bag is just too cold for these temperatures. Act like Australia and warm up, Australia. But not too much. Act like Saskatchewan in August, okay?
More fence-following up and down hills today, and some were real monsters. I wouldn’t like to do this section when the ground is wet and slippery.
I noticed that the soles of my boots are much reduced. I’ve done all of my Australian backpacking with them, and all the recent road walking can’t have been good for them. I may have to replace them before the end of the trail… I have a pair of trail runners in Adelaide, but they have a zero drop heel and it wouldn’t be wise to abruptly switch to that, even if I wanted to wear trail runners for backpacking. Maybe I could insert heel pads. Hmm.
Burra is a big town with historical buildings that you can visit with a ‘passport’ key from the visitor centre. Upon arrival I realized that today is Sunday rather than Monday as I had thought, and the grocery store was already closed. I got a room at the Burra Hotel ($40), which has a pizza alley next door. It’s like a walk-through for pizza, where you order at a window and return to fetch the pizza in twenty minutes. I support!
So there you have it – my recount of how I came, saw and managed to survive the Arizona Trail. It was an experience made incredible both by its nature and how wildly different it was from anything I’ve done before, and I still feel like I’m stuck in a limbo where I’m neither able to process the past few months nor move forwards. So instead of reading a nice coherent summary of my thoughts, you get to read some irritating rambling. HURRAH! BANZAI! BANZAI!
From Mexico to Pine, the trail was incredible. I didn’t love it all, but when I hated it, I hated it with a passion, and there’s something to be said for being able to arouse such intensity of emotion (am I really complimenting it here?). Most of my favourite passages were there: the Rincons, the Santa Catalinas, Gila River Canyons. There were also beautiful shorter sections like the Red Hills and Black Hills and Mt. Lemmon Cookie Cabin and various areas that I don’t know/remember the names of. I had a love/hate relationship with thru-hiking in which I was constantly frustrated about having to rush through pretty areas and spend time in ugly areas, but I also thought about how I would never have hiked one particular section or another and seen its loveliness if not for the AZT.
From Pine to Utah, the trail was the opposite. Except for the Grand Canyon and the last day before Utah, I found nothing in the scenery that either amazed me or pissed me off (which pissed me off). The trail was mostly flat and often on road, offering neither changes in perspective nor the feeling of solitude given by single-track. I would skip the section between Pine and the Grand Canyon were I hiking the AZT again.
Advice to future AZT hikers:
1. Wear hiking boots!
2. Arizona is grotesquely windy. Either use a stove unaffected by the wind or get a good windscreen. My windscreen was a baking pan that I sort of bent to attempt to keep out the wind. I was told that I would be lucky if it fell out of my pack. Sadly, it never did.
3. You don’t necessarily have to drink out of grotty water sources if you’re willing to carry a lot of water and/or cache water, but if you’re planning to drink out of tanks – if that’s even a possibility – I advise getting a filter. I can’t really imagine someone going up to dead owl water… slowly scooping up a few litres… tossing in some iodine tablets… and taking a big swig, ‘AHHHHHHH’. Or crouching down by a grotty tank surrounded by cow droppings… dipping in their Platy… adding a few drops of Aquamira… ‘MMMMMMMM, GOOD WATER’. I have no doubt that there are people who do this, nor that I would gag to see them in action.
4. If you’re from a cold/er climate, consider using an umbrella. It really helped me deal with the heat.
One last thing: I received the trail name ‘Pockets’ from Pops, logic being that I was storing many/strange things in my pockets, plus the chocolate pocket incident which I have decided to simply call ‘Dark Sunday’. It’s kind of generic, but I like it because it reminds me of a cute kitten, or a cute teddy bear, or a demented clown. ‘Guess what I’ve got in my pockets, kids? Liveee rattlesnakesssssssss! Hyuk yuk!’ Parents, sometimes the cheapest choice is not the best.
The cicadas were noisy in the morning. I collected a few exoskeletons for my niece and started off. The temperature increased rapidly. I had plenty of water but was rationing it because I didn’t know how long I would have to wait for Pops C at Stateline Campground. At the Buckskin Mountain trailhead, there were cans of soda!!! And one of juice!!! And 4L of water!!!
None of it was labelled. I stood looking at it for awhile. It seemed like trail magic, but after taking that bottle of water back by Twin Tanks, I began obsessing that it might not have been trail magic and felt bad about it and have only taken from the huge caches since. So I left, with regret. I began to feel emotional around that point, since the cache if trail magic had seemed like a reward, emphasizing that today would be the end of my hike. The AZT may not be the longest trail out there, but it’s been my world for two and a half months. My world was now about to end, and I about to return to some other reality that seemed distant and hard to understand.
As I was coming out of a dip, peering out from under my umbrella, I met another hiker: a young, skinny female with a large pack. She informed me that she was heading SOBO on the AZT to the Grand Canyon and then north to Washington on the PCT. She was alone, and this was her first hike. It was eerily like an encounter with myself (as I leave the AZT, another me begins…?). She also told me that she had met Pops C earlier, so he must have passed me at some point, probably while I was in Jacob Lake. I wished her well and we parted ways.
The scenery of those last few hours was dramatic. The trail dropped down, down, down, with the red cliffs of Utah in the distance. Bold colours, striking rock formations. For the first time since the Grand Canyon, I was struck by how beautiful my surroundings were.
I wonder whether I would have felt differently about everything if this last section of the hike had been ponderosa pine forest, but as it happened I felt terribly sad when I reached Stateline CG and the end of the Arizona Trail. The campground was surrounded by incredibly gorgeous scenery, and empty. Pops wasn’t here, nor was anyone.
Oops. I guess the solution for not wanting to hitchhike alone isn’t trying to arrange to hitchhike with someone else, but rather to stop being so cheap and pay for a shuttle. I checked my phone. No reception. No choice. Stateline CG was beautiful and I had enough water to spend a night there, but when confronted with adversity I tend to either deal with it with panicky haste or procrastinate as long as humanly possible, and procrastinating for one night just isn’t long enough to be fun.
Taking one picture of an ‘entering Utah’ sign, I walked the 2 km to Wire Pass trailhead, where I knew there would be people. I stuck out my thumb for the first car driving by. The driver stopped and asked me where I was going. I said, dramatically,
‘Civilization is in the other direction.’
Damn, talk about your major backfires. But she then explained that she was only going a short distance down the road to pick up her husband before heading back to civilization, which was Kanab, and she could drive me there as long as I didn’t mind the detour. She turned out to be a truly lovely human being who, in Kanab, introduced me to another truly lovely human being who took me under her wing and offered to drive me to a city from whence I could catch a shuttle to Las Vegas and its airport. I feel so lucky to have met these wonderful people, as well as all the other people who helped me along the way.
Jacob Lake Inn has a reputation for making great cookies, so I bought some before I left today. They were underbaked. NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOoooooooo! I was so disappointed (I still ate them all). I’m giving the ‘best cookies along the AZT’ title to Summerhaven, since Summerhaven and Pine both had great-tasting cookies, but Summerhaven’s were giant and thus automatically win. Now that this important information has been imparted…
The trail started with forest walking. I was carrying enough water to get to Stateline Campground and for one night of camping to wait for Pops C, since most of the scant water sources for this final 45 km are listed in the water report as dry and a few as gross. Near one of the gross sources, Government Reservoir (speaking of deceptive names for cattle tanks…) the trail broke into a huge and pretty open area covered with shrubbery.
The AZT skirted the area for a long time. I noticed that the insects were loud, and also heard an odd crackling sound like popping popcorn, but didn’t think much of it until I leaned my hiking poles on a shrub to remove my pack and noticed five or six insect exoskeletons clinging to the branches. I examined the nearby trees. More exoskeletons. I realized excitedly that I was in the midst of a cicada emergence. How awesome is that? I’m happy that I got to see something so cool on my second-to-last day on the trail.
I found a campsite and have the cicadas for company tonight.
Because of my long day yesterday, today I had a short jaunt to Jacob Lake, which can be accessed either via forest roads or a highway walk. I decided on the highway walk since its junction is 3-4 km further along the AZT and I wanted to complete those kilometres with a light pack. On my way to the junction, I saw a Kaibab squirrel! They live only on the Kaibab Plateau and they’re very cute, with white tails and tufts on their ears. When they make the squirrel noise, it sounds like a turkey. Awww turkeysquirrel.
Jacob Lake has a gas station, visitor centre and inn. People were milling around the inn, but Camper Village was almost deserted. Staying there was almost like camping alone in the woods, except with the opportunity for a $2.25 shower. The inn’s small store had numerous goods in the trail mix category, including chunks of peanut brittle. Things I would change if hiking the AZT again: suffer from a trail mix shortage just before reaching Jacob Lake. The inn has Wi-Fi, but unfortunately it’s for guests only.
The AZT was entirely in forest today. At Telephone Hill, a short, steep climb ended in a major burn area with shrubbery and dandelions scattered around trees like black sticks. The wind sounded like children screaming. Freak me out, will you? I sat down, ate loads of chocolate and then automatoned for 2-3 hours until the forest filled out.
Long day. Again I was wary about making camp and ended up walking until the wind died down.
I woke up today, ate granola, looked at my GPS to record my location for journaling purposes, looked at the databook. Looked back at the GPS. Looked back at the databook. Oops.
I wasn’t out of Grand Canyon National Park. Due to the rain and well-built trail I hadn’t been checking my maps or GPS yesterday, and when the AZT reached the gate entrance I simply assumed that camping was fine. In actuality, the trail runs parallel to the boundary for another 4 km, and I had completed ~3.5 km. No wonder those deer were acting so strange – they knew their rights and were probably in the process of procuring a lawyer. I escaped the area in record time.
The trail wound through pretty meadows surrounded by dense forest. I was happy to find Crystal Spring flowing, since the last person to contribute to the water report for Crystal Spring and many of the other final sources was Rainer, and he passed through a trillion years ago (early May) so I wasn’t sure about any of them. As I was having a snack at the spring, an older man arrived so quietly that I didn’t hear him until he was right behind me. I jumped, then said hi. He said hi and kept walking as if he didn’t want to talk, but stopped ~20 m away and sat down. I figured that he was going to filter water, but he just sat there for awhile and then left. Huh.
Fantastic views of the canyon. A sign informed me that if I descended the slope to my right, I would enter the Saddle Mountain Wilderness Area. I wanna go, I wanna… but the AZT turned left, joining a road running through a vast open field. The wind had been picking up for awhile, and in the open area it was blowing right into my face and ridiculously strong. I retreated to the edge of the forest for a break, hoping that it would die down quickly. Nope. Returning to the trail, I slogged across the meadow to where the trail re-entered the forest. The trees were swaying furiously. I had been walking for only 20-30 minutes when I heard a crack and a cluster of branches fell right in front of me, the wilderness equivalent of the falling piano almost crushing the oblivious urbanite. Yikes. A burn area is not a good place to be walking in bad wind. I considered returning to the meadow but didn’t, partially because the meadow was unpleasant, partially because I had to walk through the forest at some point and the wind might continue for a week for all I knew.
On through the forest. At 5:30 PM I started thinking about camping, but nowhere looked safe. I considered setting up my tent beside a log so that I wouldn’t be crushed by any falling trees unless they fell at a ridiculously lucky angle, but I couldn’t find any spots I liked, so I kept walking. Eventually the wind died down, camp was made and Esbit lit without too much trouble.