Saturday, November 26, 2016

Arizona Trail- Going home

Waking up to the sound of rain. How do other people keep their stuff dry while getting in and out of a tent in the rain? It’s so easy under a tarp with the hammock. I miss my hammock. It seemed like it would be fun to master another system. But the reality is that I don’t want to have to think about gear.

The rain stops once I’m ready to pack up. The sun paints pinks and purples on passing clouds.
At the top of the ridge, I have enough signal to get the forecast. Possible thunderstorms and high chance of rain. What would that be like out here?
What does "possible thunderstorms" even mean?
How much rain does it take for a flash flood to happen? More than a half an inch? But what about the "heavy rainfall" part? Does that make a flash flood? Will the new tent keep me dry in "heavy rainfall"? I just don't have a good feeling about any of this.

I call Still Waters. “Does it make me a quitter if I get a ride to my car?”

I hear the tone in her voice change. She has this way of sighing when I talk about being a quitter.

“Just make smart decisions,” she says.

I hike the mile back down to the highway. I will get a ride to my car.

When I get to the road, the idea of hitchhiking fills me with trepidation. Which is werid because I've never had problems getting a ride. But it is right after the election and the world seems less safe- so many hate crimes exploding in the news. Of course nothing has really changed— there are still the same people everywhere and I am still the same person. A person who can get rides from strangers.
I take a selfie just to double check. You'd pick me up, right? Is the short hair is a little suspicious? Maybe the “Junior Ranger” patch on my backpack wasn’t such a good idea.
But then I get over myself. I find a wide spot in the road, adjust my attitude, smile, and stick out my thumb.

A car passes. There is so little traffic that I can sit down between cars. Another car. Another.

The thing about hitchhiking is that you just have to wait for the right person to stop. You don’t even have to believe in the universal kindness of humanity. There just has to be one person. Turns out she isn’t even going my way. She passes by and I see the “Arizona Trail Association” sticker on her car and she stops and turns around.

“This isn’t a good place to be," she says. "Hop in and I’ll take you down the road where you can wait. If you can’t find a ride by the end of the day, call me and I’ll take you to your car.”

The ladies at the gas station where I get dropped off tell me I can’t hitchhike here- “It’s too dangerous.” Then an older guy stops in (who they know) and the ladies arrange for him to take me to the Roosevelt Lake Resort.

I have no idea why this will help me get to where I’m going. But they insist. I trust them.

Families are sitting around the lodge having breakfast when I walk in. There is a fire in the fireplace and the smell of hot coffee and bacon. The manager tells me that he is heading into town in an hour with his son and they are going right past my car! Would I like a ride to my car with them?


How could things have worked out so well?!?! I can hardly believe it but I am to my car in such a short time and on the road and driving all the way back home.

The next day I sit inside drinking hot cocoa and look out the window as the most intense hail storm I’ve ever seen moves through. It’s so loud and covers the streets with an icy mess. Is this happening down on the Arizona Trail? I don’t know but when I check the weather I see there is lightening strikes out there and I am glad I am not out in it and I am so very thankful for all the good people who helped me along my way. Those three people that gave me rides (three!) restored my faith in human kindness once again. It warms my heart to know there are still good people out there who will help out a stranger.

Maybe I needed to know that more than anything else right now.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Arizona Trail- Passage 20- Four Peaks Wilderness

Shake Spring to Cottonwood Creek
21.6 miles

Hiking in the dark of early morning. Not even a speck of glow on the horizon. My weak headlamp is worthless so I turn it off. Moonlight is more than enough to show the trail ahead.

It’s pure joy to be walking in the predawn. In Montana, I always waited until daylight because of the grizzlies. I’ve missed this— the sounds and scents intensified, the feel of trail underfoot, seeing the first signs of pink on the horizon. Watching the light slowly changing into morning.
Crossing scree fields by first morning light
I’m glad I had the experience of hiking in grizzly country though, don’t get me wrong. But I’m glad I can hike here now in the dark.  Appreciating this hour all the more. Maybe that is how it will be with the tent. Maybe?
Contouring along the hillside
Watching shadows
The Four Peaks Wilderness is everything I love about a remote place. Being a tiny speck clinging to steep slopes. No sounds of cars. No people.
Four Peaks Wilderness
By mid-day, it heats up like summer. The sun umbrella comes out. Still hot. Careful attention is placed on water— consumption rates, how much is left. Small sips of water, swirled around before swallowing. No gulping. Gotta last.
A sliver of shade from a spiny desert bush. I plop down. My back is drenched in sweat. I can’t remember being this hot for a long time. Maybe there was one hot day in Montana this year but I was working and missed it. Funny to finally find summer this late in November. Guess that’s Arizona for you.

The break doesn’t last long. Must get to the water cache by evening. There is no water at Granite Spring. There is no water at Buckhorn Creek. Walking amidst the towering saguaro cactus and gazing down at Roosevelt Lake, imagining how it would feel to gulp water, to swim in a lake. My gallon of water is wedged under a rock up ahead. Cool water waiting.
Lots of water down there.
The trail is narrow and the loose rocks make footing difficult. My feet slip and slide like I’m walking over marbles. I look at my watch and frown, disappointed I’m not making better time. Must beat the sunset. But also— must not slip and fall.

Humans! The first (and only) humans encountered this trip are an AmeriCorps/ American Conservation Experience (ACE) crew doing trail maintenance. ACE is the AmeriCorps program here in Arizona that provides opportunities for young people to do environmental stewardship projects. It’s the local equivalent of Montana Conservation Corps, which is a group I worked with at my park in Montana.
ACE crew and the beautiful new tread
I’m the first hiker the crew has seen up here and I have the privilege of being the first to hike down the improved trail. They’ve smoothed it out, created waterbars, and widened it considerably. Amazing work! Thank you for making the Arizona Trail a better trail and for your service!

In no time I’m down at the road, retrieving my water cache, trucks whizzing by as I cling to the side of the road crossing the bridge.

There is water in the cattle tank too, so my water cache was unnecessary. But it meant I got water 2 miles sooner. Two miles of blissful hydration.
Checking the weather forecast brings bad news. Now it says heavy rains and possible thunderstorms. Maybe a little water would be good to fill up the springs. But maybe there would be too much water in the form of flash flooding.
The trees along Sycamore Creek have sprawling branches and most of the ground is slanted. More hammock sites than tent sites here. I find a spot but can’t get comfortable.

 My body aches and I just want to sleep but instead I just toss and turn and think about flash floods and lightening on exposed ridges and slippery trails and being alone. Nights are long this time of year. Too much time to think.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Arizona Trail- Passage 21

Sunflower (hwy 87) to near Shake Spring
21.8 miles

Headlights shine through the dark parking lot. My ride! Last minute gear decisions are hastily made and the trunk of my car slams closed with an echo of finality. Ready or not this is happening: a solo section hike of the Arizona Trail. With tent.

K. is a hiker from Phoenix who kindly offered to give me a shuttle to Sunflower. Her cheerful hiking stories brighten the morning as she navigates the highways around Phoenix. It’s great talking to someone who knows this area. She points out the Four Peaks- a well-known mountain range (featured on the Arizona license plate!) that the Arizona Trail crosses. Before I know it, we are at the Bushwell Tanks Trailhead near Sunflower and I am waving goodbye and then she is gone and its just me and the trail.
I wind down to Sycamore Creek. Sunlight blazes through the yellow leaves and the creek merrily babbles along. Breathing in the sweet scent of fall, my shoulders relax and my pack settles down comfortably against my back, part of me again.
My plan is to make it to my water cache before dark, and with the short winter days, there is a time crunch. I keep checking my watch and readjusting my speed- faster, faster. Squeezing energy from my legs. I forget to look around, focusing instead on foot placement on the rocky trail. When I do look up, the sycamores are already a ribbon of yellow snaking through the valley.
Ribbon of yellow
Dark shapes scurry up the far slope. My heart rate skyrockets, adrenaline rushes over me.  Then I remember I’m not in Montana anymore. No moose, no grizzlies here.
After more climbing, the roadwalking begins and I stop focusing on foot placement and look around.
Expansive views, delightful rock formations, and rising peaks ahead all make for an entertaining hike. Higher still, a grove of ponderosa pines provides a sweet rest break spot.
Soft pine-needle ground, birds fly back and forth above. Everything here is so alive.
Trail friend.
By late afternoon, I arrive at my water cache. Two miles later, Pigeon Springs does have a few inches of soupy stagnant water but I was glad to have taken the time to leave my own water just in case. None of the other water sources had water, so if Pigeon Springs had been dry, I’d have been in trouble.

Crossing into the Four Peaks Wilderness, the forest changes rapidly. Scat, so much scat on the trail. Two deer. A bird’s nest, birds everywhere. Trees, so many trees. I try not to look at the trees, but I can’t help seeing all the well-spaced trees that would accommodate a hammock. It’s what the mind does at the hour before sunset. But I have a tent, not a hammock. What was I thinking?!?!
Plenty of trees. Trees glowing in the sun. Oh Trees.
Flat ground. Look for flat ground. But I don’t see any, just sloped spots and trees that would be perfect.

I walk into the sunset. The distant peaks are hot pink. There must be a flat spot soon.
Roosevelt Lake glistens.
Finally, a small cleared spot past dry Shake Spring. I set up the tent in the dark, serenaded by a chorus of crickets. My body is used to sinking into quick sleep in my hammock after a day on the trail- I typically sleep like a rock without even waking up at all. While I’ve spent a handful of nights in my tent after short dayhikes, this is the first night after backpacking serious miles.

On the ground, I toss and turn, unable to settle. My muscles yell angrily. My arms flop around, my legs feel too low and strait, my spine is all misaligned. I try to imagine being one with the ground. How do other people do this? What am I doing wrong? I flip and flop and rearrange everything, and flip flop.

Eventually a restless sleep comes.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Bonus Miles on the Arizona Trail

4 AM. The sound of screaming. Or is it barking? Is it coming closer? Frozen, I strain to hear. Nothing. Maybe it went away. I poke my head outside the tent, but the weak headlamp does nothing to penetrate the darkness. The milky way stretches across the sky.
Wait, what was that?!? This is not a hammock! Can that be right? Have you lost your mind?
If I were in my hammock, I know I would immediately fall back asleep. If I were in my hammock, I probably wouldn’t have even woken up.

Instead I lie awake. Turning from side to side. Waiting. Flipping over. Waiting some more. Maybe my other side will be better. Nope.

Whose bright idea was it to try a tent?! Oh, yes, me. It seemed like a good idea. Stretching myself, learning new skills, breaking out of my rut. Attempting to be a more versatile backpacker.

Maybe I should stick to my old ways. Old ways are there for a reason.

Plenty of people sleep on the ground. How hard can it be?

I have plenty of time to contemplate all this in the hours that I don't sleep.

At first light I walk along the Arizona Trail, back towards the trailhead. The sky is pink, the maples are pink. Just a mile back and then I am to my car.

I think of these as bonus miles because I know I will have to retrace these steps when I backpack through this section. For now, this is a good spot to spend the night on my drive south to hike a little section hike of the Arizona Trail.

My mission for the day is setting up water caches. The trail steward told me water is scarce this time of year.

The dirt road climbs steeply and my little hybrid car strains in first gear. Will I make it up the hill, I wonder. A friend has this same car, and I remember one time we had to all get out and push her car up a dirt road to get up a mountain to our trailhead. Only I have no one to push. I lean forward and try to use my momentum. Mostly, I dislike driving. Mostly, I am worried the road will get worse.  Every tenth of a mile seems like an eternity.  I make it 3.8 miles up the road.
This is the non-steep part. But I was too scared to stop for a photo on the steep part.
Finally, I have had enough. I abandon my car at a wide pullover. The gallon jug of water goes into my pack. I start hiking up the road. Much better. The climb feels good after the long drive. The dust and the sun and the wind. A couple hours later I’ve climbed 1800 feet and a van comes up from behind me. The driver is instantly recognizable as a hiker. I hop in without hesitating.  He will take me the rest of the way up.

Turns out he is a triple crowner (and perhaps somewhat of a hiking legend) and just hiked one of the sections I’m planning on doing! How cool!

He drops me off at a good stop for my water cache and I tuck the gallon jug under a bush. Thanks so much for the ride and more importantly for the good conversation, Seiko!


In the afternoon, there is enough time to check out Tonto National Monument. The Arizona Trail passes just a few miles from here, but there’d be no way to get here easily. When I walk up to the cliff dwelling, I’m the only visitor and the awesome VIP volunteer ranger tells me all about the Salado people who lived here 850 years ago.
Cliff dwelling at Tonto National Monument

The sun is setting as I set up my tent near the Picketpost Trailhead.  I lie in the tent and listen to the traffic sounds. It’s a struggle to fall asleep again. I try to imagine what it would have been like to live in a cliff dwelling. I try to imagine all the countless backpackers on all the long trails sleeping on the ground. Maybe it will be easier after a long hard day of hiking. Maybe I’ll just need to keep practicing until I get used to sleeping on the ground.

(Or maybe this is stupid and I should give up and stick with what I know works for me.)

But I left my hammock back home. Like it or not, I'm committed to this experiment.