Wednesday, October 21, 2015

New Transmission for my BIRTHDAY!

Visiting Maggie in Seattle we decided to park the motorhome on the Olympic Peninsula, a ferry ride away from all the madness in the greater Seattle area.

I knew I was close to Maggie’s place when I stopped at a Burger King and had to use what little Chinese I know to order a milkshake, “Moo Moo no Baa Baa” seemed to do the trick. You had to be buzzed into the bathroom which is always a good sign that you’re in a great part of town.

We only had a chance to see Maggie three times, but she is busy working. We loved our little place outside of Port Townsend, Washington. It was in a town called Chimacum. I was able to get a lot of walking in. There was a thrift shop about a mile away with a donut trailer in the parking lot. I would walk all the way over, have a couple donuts, and walk all the way back. I felt like a new man. I worked up to three laps before we left, six miles and six donuts.

One day we were out shopping for a desk. Maggie needed a desk and we found one 30 miles south in another cute port town. While there the Saturn transmission began pounding like a sledge hammer hitting a rail spike--not a good thing. We limped home in second gear and started working on a solution. It is hard finding a good mechanic on the road. Going in blind you can often get ripped off. Life’s a crapshoot, and an adventure. You can do all the preparation in the world, but sooner or later you have to throw the dice.

When we returned to the park I asked management and a few permanent residents for a recommendation. I went online and read many reviews. My first thought was to find someone local. I also Googled my problem on several online forums. I made a list of several shops in a 50 mile radius and started interviewing. That’s right, they were going to go to work for me. I wanted someone nice, polite, competent and honest. Everyone I talked to seemed to fit the bill. They were all nice, polite, seemed competent and all had the same diagnosis. From my online studies it sounded like the transmission valve body needed replacing. Everyone I talked to seemed to agree. I finally made a couple choices and decided to tow the car to the transmission shops with the motorhome. It was my birthday. It didn't seem right to spend my birthday at transmission shops, but life is not always fair. I picked two places about 40 miles away in close proximity to each other. If I didn’t like the first one I could move on for a second opinion.

The first guy was really nice. Took the car in immediately, ran the electronic codes, test drove the car and told me I needed to have the whole transmission rebuilt. He had so many code errors my car should have died three years ago. For just under three thousand bucks he could have me back on the road in about a week. That’s when it hit me. Railroad employees always used to say that Jesse James was nice and always polite, but he still took all their money. I paid the $52 for their advice and moved on. When I was leaving the guy said, “Reverse doesn’t work very well.” I said, “That’s okay, I’m not coming back.”

By the time I hauled the car to the next place it was four o’clock in the afternoon. I was hoping they could at least take a look at it before they closed. It was at a business called Tranco in Port Angeles, Washington. It looked very clean and organized. In fact, I think you could eat off the floor. They brought me right in, and let me watch them as they plugged the code reader into my car. Surprise! There were no error codes. They said that 95% of the time it is just the valve body gone bad. They could order one (out of state) and have it there by the next morning. With the hour they had before closing they could have the old one off and ready for the new one in the morning. I would be “Back on the Road Again” for $752. I pulled the trigger, “Let’s do it.” Went out to the Dynasty Chinese Restaurant, spent a quiet, beautiful night camped in Olympic National Park and the car was ready for pickup by nine o’clock the next morning.

My old Saturn is now purring like a tomcat in a creamery. It pays to be a little suspect. Stories do not always have a happy ending, but if you go through the motions, control your emotions and dial out all the commotions, you have a better chance than being treated like lambs to the slaughter.

We seemed back to normal and made arrangements to visit Maggie again the next morning. That night Gaila decided to drive over to the park laundry and do a quick load. As she pulled away from our site she failed to see a large cement abutment placed to protect the utilities for our site. By the time I heard the crash and looked out the window, Gaila was trying to back off the cement and the bumper was hanging low. Luckily the sway bar stopped her before she took out the oil pan and a brand new transmission valve body. Antifreeze was shooting out of the crushed radiator, the fan motor was hanging limp, and three unidentified car parts lay on the ground.

I was afraid to go look because they say things happen in three’s and she was still behind the wheel. It was getting dark, so after a sufficient amount of checking for damage, and swearing to relieve pressure, I went to bed. We wouldn’t be going to Seattle again in the morning.

With new daylight on the situation I figured I could wire up a lot of parts. The main problem was stopping up the radiator. It was crushed in the lower right corner. The nearest auto parts store was about ten miles into town. I decided to ride my bike in to get a few parts, a jug of antifreeze and some magic stopper upper glue.

It was very dangerous riding my bike to town. I had to leave Gaila back at the campground with the car, unsupervised!

I am also amazed at all my cyclist friends who do long-distance, cross-country rides. I find it unnerving riding along a highway shoulder on a twenty-pound bike next to five-thousand plus pound vehicles speeding by. If there is ever a fight, I am going to automatically lose.

Instead of riding with traffic, I rode against it. If someone is going to yell, throw something or run me over, I want to see it coming. On the way back a guy was passing me on the other side of the road. He was a cyclist on a long trip. He had panniers loaded with packs on the front and back of his bike. He was yelling at me!

Through the loud din of the traffic I could hear him telling me I was riding on the wrong side of the road. Since it was so loud I thought I should reply with the universal sign language that everyone understands, but there was enough of a break in traffic that I yelled, “Mele Kalikimaka me ka Hau'oli Makahiki Hou,” which is Merry Christmas and Happy New Year in Hawaiian. That seemed to sufficiently confuse him, which was my intent. He shook his head, waved me off, and moved on.

Had he been a bit more polite I might have told him he was heading for a narrow bridge and to come over to my side and take the safety path underneath. But because he seemed like such an expert I let him go. Adversity builds character and he wasn’t as much of a character as I am yet.

By the time he figured it all out I was miles ahead of him. When he caught up to me the second time, he didn’t say a word.

Back at the ranch, I climbed under the Saturn with my goop and started slathering it on. A couple applications, a spool of baling wire and a bit of duct tape and she was good as new. I had just replaced the radiator before we left home, so it needed a little breaking in, and now it’s broke real good.

We finally headed for Maggie’s for the last time. We picked up the desk on the way to the ferry. Somehow, we squeezed it into the backseat of the Saturn. We looked like the Clampetts headed for Beverly Hills.

I think I can safely say we dodged the third event. Taking Maggie home after enjoying another visit to Rosita’s Mexican restaurant in Seattle, some idiot blew through a four way stop. Had I not been a bit confused as to whether it was my turn, we would have been in the middle of the intersection when Einstein came through.

This morning we are much more relaxed. We are camped at an ocean overlook in the town of Port Orford, Oregon with a view of sea stacks and spouting whales off our port bow. Life is Good.

--Keep Smilin’, Dick E. Bird

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Finishing the Arizona Trail

Finishing at the Utah Border
After a week of moving back to the Grand Canyon and recovering from whatever stomach ailment I had, I started into the canyon. I was figuring on four days to the Utah border to reach the end of the Arizona Trail. I left the motorhome at 4 a.m. to catch a shuttle to the trailhead. It was windy and the temp was around freezing. I knew once I made it a ways into the big ditch it would warm up. In an hour or so, the sun came up, the wind ceased and I packed my mittens and hat away. I was across the river into Phantom Ranch by 9 a.m. 
That was the short (7+ mile) easy part of the day. The next leg, (13+) would be switchbacking up to the North Rim. I had been doing 25-30 mile days but this 22 was a bit more challenging. After talking with the backcountry office, I was told if I could make it to the North Rim I would not need a permit. I made the mistake of stopping at the Phantom Ranch ranger station and asking if the water was turned on at the North Rim. I didn’t want to carry a gallon all the way up if I could get it when I arrived up there. They assured me it was available up top but asked me for my permit. I told them what the backcountry office told me, but they insisted I buy a $15 special use permit to sleep on the North Rim. I was not in a argumentative mood. I still had a lot of tough miles to get out of the canyon. It was worth the price of admission. The North Rim was still not open for the season, so I had the whole place to myself. I slept right on the rim, overlooking the canyon to the East. It was a windy night, a cold morning once again, but I got up at 5 a.m. and started north. I still had 80 miles to Utah. Water was a problem all the way. There were several trailheads that AZT members had left water caches, but they were all sucked dry. It’s the price you pay for being the last guy in. The five AZT hikers behind me when I reached the Canyon went through the week I was off. The only good water I had during the four days was a bottle given to me by some day hikers and a five mile walk, off trail, to the town of Jacob Lake. I didn’t want to walk five miles round trip out of my way, but decided good water and a hamburger would be worth it. Now that I am done with this hike I have decided on a new career. I’m going into the milkshake machine repair business. So many places I go have a milkshake machine in disrepair. Actually, I think there is a shortage of qualified milkshake machine operators. It’s a very complicated operation and I don’t think they are offering college training in this field anymore. 
I made it back to the trailhead by nightfall with enough water to last the entire next day. After 34 days on the trail my collapsible water jug was leaking. I quickly poured my precious cargo into every other container I carried.  Sometimes I am not sure if I drink because I’m thirsty, or I just want to lighten my load. But once I get low I wish I would have conserved a bit more. I brought a Sawyer filter, but it plugs up quickly with the murky water I find. 
A half day north of Jacob Lake the land becomes arid again. Once out of the Ponderosa pine I dropped back into the Juniper, cactus and sagebrush. This area of the North Kaibab Plateau is famous for trophy mule deer, bighorn sheep and buffalo.
Five miles from the Utah border (Stateline Campground) I could smell fire. Less than a mile to my west I could see smoke pouring out of the dry landscape. I could also hear trucks moving along the occasional jeep tracks I would cross. I started being very careful not to run into a fire crew that might end my hike just short of the finish line. 
The end was pretty uneventful. After dozens of large metal Arizona Trail signs at every junction, the end at the Utah border had nothing. It was a campground with a trail register. It did have some Arizona Trail information, but no fireworks or people flag waving me in to the finish line. Studying the trail register I saw that the Yukon couple had finished the day before. Grasshopper and HazNoHorse finished six days before on April 28th. The only one missing was Old Drum. I hope he is okay. I will have to try Googling him. 
I didn’t take much time to revel in my glory. I still had daylight. Although the road looked pretty deserted through Coyote Canyon, it would only take one ride. I quickly boiled some water I found in a wildlife tank, poured it back in my water bottle and hit the road south. I couldn’t have planned the timing for the end of the hike any better. It was a weekend and the beginning of turkey season. The Arizona Trail starts and ends in very remote locations. According to my guidebook it was an 8 mile Forest Service road walk to Utah Hwy. 89. My plan was to hike up and hitch hike back around to Jacob Lake on Hwy 89A, then south 30 miles back to the North Rim. When I finally reach the border the road sign indicated it was 11 miles to 89, or I could go 19 miles south to 89A. I decided I would rather hike the 19 with the chance of finding a ride taking me in the right direction. It was a wise move. I only walked about 5 miles. A local guide, along with his kids, where headed for the Jacob Lake area to turkey hunt for the weekend. They let me jump in the back of their pickup with the dog. The dog and I bonded immediately. He was hanging on to me for dear life, and I him. Finally, the driver stopped and told me he had to make better time. I guess we weren’t going fast enough on the roughest road in America. So he let me climb into the cab, but the dog was on his own. He was splayed out in the pickup bed in the yoga position, downward dog, trying not to be ejected. I could not have been happier. Trying not to be ejected from a pickup bed was much preferred than walking 19 miles to a hard road, then trying to hitch a ride another 20 miles west to Jacob Lake. At the speed we were moving I knew there was a bacon cheeseburger in my near future. They dropped me off and bought gas. I bought them all cookies at the bakery and thanked them profusely. 
I did get my cheeseburger. I sat there in disbelief that I was sitting on the same bar stool I sat on just 24 hours earlier, only this time I had finished the last 28 miles of the trail. 
My next objective was getting a ride the next morning to the North Rim. Highway 67 was blocked off with a locked gate just down the road from the cafe. I slept in the woods a hundred yards from the road gate and noticed that a lot of people would drive up, unlock the gate, slip through and lock it behind them. I assumed they were National Park and concession workers preparing to open the North Rim for the season. I had a captive audience. I would stand next to the gate with my “North Rim” sign and look doe-eyed at everyone who came through. The only problem I could imagine with my plan was the fact that it was Sunday. The cafe opened at 8 a.m. I decided to get up at my usual 5 a.m., stand near the cafe with my sign, and hope for an early arrival. If no one picked me up, I would eat breakfast and start walking south. 
My feet no more than hit the pavement when a father and son pulled out from a Forest Service side road. They stopped to see if I had dropped a camera they had found. They said there was a picture on it of a guy who looked just like me. I said, “I get that all the time. Does the guy look like Brad Pitt?” 
I wish I would have stayed on subject because it could have been Grasshopper’s camera. He took several pictures of me while we were hiking together. But I had tunnel vision. I was trying to get to the canyon. They immediately offered to take me down. They had been up since 4 a.m. driving around the North Plateau looking for turkey with no luck. So, for the next three hours, I went turkey hunting as we moved south on back Forest Service roads. Both father and son were ex-jarheads like myself. We hit it off right away. Dropping down a power line into the National Park boundary we had to give right-of-way to a pickup climbing toward us. It was the guy with the kids out looking for turkey also. I was so relieved to see the dog was still hanging in the bed. 
We didn’t see any male birds, but by 9 a.m. I was deposited at the North Rim trailhead and dropping into the canyon. I walked hard all day and found Gaila waiting for me at the South Rim Bright Angel Trailhead at 7:30 p.m.
Just over 48 hours after signing the trail register in No Mans Land Utah, I was seated in the motorhome drinking really cold beer, eating Sloppy Joes, salad, ice cream and brownies. Life is Good!
Finishing back at the Grand Canyon South Rim

*Reality is always so much clearer than pre-trip perceptions. Studying this trail I was thinking I would find hundreds of squirrelly illegal trails at the border, NOT! Actually not one.
*I read, “Crossing Arizona” written by Scottish backpacker, Chris Townsend. He was carrying a gallon of water. I was not going to carry a gallon of water. I was right. I ended up carrying over a gallon most of the time. 
*I would have spent more time figuring out a method of filtering water had I known what my actual choices for water would be. The small Sawyer filter I carried was slow because it clogged so fast. I ended up boiling water more often than filtering. 
*I faired better than most with my boot choices. I started out with Vasque Breeze, but found the cut too narrow. I ended the trip with my old Keen leather boots. I had to Shoe Goo the soles often to make them last, but they protected my feet from the constant rock trail. Those wearing light-weight trail shoes suffered from feet that resembled ground round. 
*I noticed my legs fatigued quickly on this trail. I believe because the stabilization muscles were always working over-time in the fist sized rock that made up much of the trail. 
*It’s a trail of contrast. In the spring it is very hot the first 400 miles, and cold the last. This was a drought year in Arizona. Many natives said, “We had summer this winter.” First time in 50 years they could not ski on Mt. Lemmon east of Tucson. 
*I would not walk this trail without hiking poles, though many people do. 
*Really happy I invested in lighter gear before this trip. I could feel the difference even when carrying 5 liters of water. Most places I backpack only require I carry a quart at a time. Without the extra water my pack now feels like a daypack. 

*The new Thermarest NeoAir mattress was the best thing I bought. Under a pound, it is like sleeping on a waterbed. It is full length (72 in.) and about 2 in. thick. 


Tuesday, April 29, 2014

AZT Superior, AZ to the Grand Canyon

Before I started the next 400 mile leg of the Arizona Trail, Gaila and I met with friends from home for a breakfast in Superior, AZ. Five miles west of Superior was where I came in a few days before. By the time we had breakfast with Bill and Laurie Bassett, it was pushing noon and the sun was high and hot. I was hoping the landscape would begin to change here, going higher, getting cooler and offering more water. I was wrong on all counts. From Superior to Roosevelt Lake would be the worst maintained, driest section of the entire hike. It started out very promising, but the last 40 miles into Roosevelt Lake was a nightmare. Coming into Superior I had met two more thru-hikers. I was beginning to feel like the young sprout on the trail. Old Drum and HazNoHorse were both 70. I just hope I am moving as well as they are in another six years. They were both taking a day off in Superior. That put them a couple days ahead of me. I caught up with Drum the 2nd day, but never saw Horse again until Pine, AZ. 
Water continues to be a problem. I never thought I would be carrying over a gallon of water on this trek, but every time I get lulled into thinking water is getting more plentiful, it disappears.  A couple days out of Superior I hit an area of pine forest and beautiful gurgling streams. Thinking this was going to be the new norm, I started carrying just a liter and a half of water. I paid heavily for that miscalculation. When I caught up with HazNoHorse, he described the trail into Roosevelt perfectly, “Someone dragged a rock behind them and called it good.”
The guidebook did warn of no maintenance to this section of trail. There was no way to avoid the prickly pear cactus, and little in the way of switchbacks. It was mostly hot, dry, straight up and down and faint trail tread. 
Others did find some nasty water, but it must have been on my blindside. I never found any until the very end. I ended up hiking about seven hours without water. A half dozen miles from Roosevelt Lake I could see billions of gallons of fresh water below me but I wouldn’t reach it until the next morning. I found a dirt pond near dark, but it was completely dried up. I decided to keep walking, hoping I would find another source. When another dirt tank came into view it was a “hallelujah moment.” It was almost completely dry, which concentrated all the nastiness to the size of a small puddle. I strained the big stuff out through some cloth I carry. What remained, clogged my filter after straining just a liter of water. I decided to boil instead. 
It is hard to catch up after you get dehydrated. The next morning I felt pretty punky. I was up at 5 a.m. as usual. It was hot early. I had nine miles, all down hill to the lake. Just above the marina I ran into Grasshopper, another thru-hiker. I was the first trail hiker he had seen since the border. I could tell he wanted to talk, but I was hot, tired, hungry and thirsty. I told him I would see him down below and kept moving. 
Grasshopper (John Paul) on the Mogollon Rim

My first priority was to hydrate. I stopped at the Visitor Center and filled my 1.5 liter bottle from the drinking fountain. I added some electrolyte powder I carry and gulped it down. I then moved on to the floating marina docks where I found a small store, with limited choices of food. Grasshopper was already there and Old Drum showed up minutes later. We spent a couple hours gorging on chocolate milk, OJ, microwave burrito breakfast sandwiches and whatever else we could find on the limited shelf space. 
Having learned my lesson, I filled every container I had with water and started back up the mountain to the trail. Still feeling punky and now bloated, I was moving pretty slow. Within an hour Grasshopper passed me. It was only 1.5 miles to a bridge crossing over the reservoir dam. It was the longest 1.5 miles of the whole trail. I was moving like a sloth. A cop stopped Old Drum and said, “It’s 96 degrees today. It’s not smart to be hiking in this heat.” Old Drum said, “We aren’t the smartest people you will ever meet.”
After crossing the bridge the trail would climb for the next 20 miles. I knew I was in no condition to climb in the heat. The only shade I could see was created by the shadow of the bridge. I spent a half hour trying to figure a way down the steep slope, through rock and cactus to reach the shadow and maybe even the lake. It seemed impossible. I started up the trail still struggling with the decision. I finally decided to just go for it. I zigzagged my way through every spiny, grabby plant in Arizona. There were cliffs, but I found if I stayed close to the bridge pilings it was possible to continue down. I reached the shade, spread out my poncho and rested for awhile. I drank all the water I carried from the marina. My next challenge was to climb down to the lake. I took my water bottles and did battle once more with the Arizona plant life. I needed to cool my core temperature. I jumped in the lake, clothes and all. I floated around awhile on my back, filled my containers, soaked my hat and climbed back to my shaded poncho. It was high noon. I slept in the shade until 3 p.m. That made all the difference, I felt renewed. 
Twenty minutes up the trail I found Old Drum. He was crouched in a small piece of shade offered from a tall bank along the trail. He was rethinking his decision not to spend a day at the campground back at the marina. I kept moving and haven’t seen him since. I hiked until dark, found myself in a steep climb and ended up camping on a flat spot right on the trail.
The next afternoon I ran into Grasshopper again. He and I would continue to run into each other for the next couple hundred miles. He is a sculptor from Manhattan, strong hiker, and has done a lot of long trails. 
I began to wonder if there were any trees left in Arizona. I was hoping to reach the Mazatzal Wilderness and begin hiking in pine forest and shade. What I didn’t realize is that the whole area has been destroyed by fire. I walked through an area of 50-60 miles that will never offer hikers shade again in my lifetime.
If this puddle with jeep and cattle tracks through it does not look appealing to drink, you probably don't want to hike the Arizona Trail.

I had a resupply box waiting for me at the post office in Pine that Gaila had sent me. I arrived on Sunday. Ran into Grasshopper and HazNoHorse. Did some laundry and ate like a little pig. Camped just outside of town so I could hike back in and eat one more big breakfast. 
This is a trail of contrast. The day before I reached Pine, AZ, Grasshopper found me floating in the East Verde River. It was not very deep, but I took the opportunity to cool my core temperature again by laying in the river and letting the water soak into my clothes and my pores. The morning after Pine, we were finally up on the Mogollon Rim in Arizona’s high country. Our water bottles were frozen.
We got up at 5 a.m. to start hiking. Grasshopper broke ice in the small pond and filled his water bottle just before first light. When we stopped to have some breakfast about 8 a.m. he noticed his water bottle was full of tadpoles. He said, “We better find another pond to release them, they’re starting to look good.”
Once on the rim the trail flattened out, we had the shade of the pines, and my mileage picked up. 
The trail went through several Forest Service campgrounds. Still too early to have the water turned on. I ran into Grasshopper close to one of the campgrounds. He was sitting on the side of the trail studying his maps. He said, “I hope there is water at the campground.” I said, “I hope there is beer.” He told me I was an Irishman thinking too positive.
We moved on. When we reached the campground we met a guy with a van camper who was section hiking the trail. He offered us water, then beer. Grasshopper just shook his head. I asked him, “Now do you believe in Leprechauns?”
I have only run into a couple rattlesnakes. Grasshopper pulled a muscle in his leg jumping back so fast when he almost stepped on a snake. He said it was a little embarrassing because it turned out being a garter snake. 
Mr. Nasty talking to me

I have done the Irish Jig more than once. I have twice stepped right next to what I call the, “Common Arizona Big Ass snake.” Three feet long, fat, rattlesnake in color and design, shakes his tail with no rattles, flattens his head to look viper-like, and hisses. 
The next small town stop would be Mormon Lake just south of Flagstaff. I was walking hard and fast to make it into town before the small cafe closed. The promise of pizza kept me focused and moving. I had not seen Grasshopper or HazNoHorse in a couple days and assumed I was at least a half day ahead of them. But pizza was driving them also. I had just inhaled mine when five minutes before the cafe was to close, HazNoHorse came bounding up on the porch and was able to  order a large pizza for he and Grasshopper. He also bought the most expensive six pack of beer I have ever heard of, twenty-four bucks, ouch.
I still had an hour of light so I moved back up the mountain to the trail for the night. 
Early the next morning I ran into a trail detour through a logging operation. It was so early in the morning I just stayed on the trail and made my way through before any logging activity started. Late that day I ran into another detour. This one I was expecting. A week earlier fire had scorched part of the Arizona Trail. It looked as if the detour sign had been taken down so I continued on the trail all the way into Flagstaff. I had heard this fire was set by campers, but it looked pretty evident to me that it was a controlled burn that got away. 
When I arrived in Flagstaff I stopped at the first place that smelled like breakfast. There I met Yukon Jack and Jane. I had seen their names on trail registers for weeks, and now I had finally caught up with them. I never did learn their real names. They are from the Yukon and love to hike long trails. 
Next, I went across the street and checked into a Motel 6 and spent the day doing laundry, bath, shopping and more eating. Flagstaff had a great city bus system so I was able to buy a bus pass for $1.25 a day. I was planning to stay in a local hostel, but a dorm room was $27. I had my own space at the Motel 6 for $35 with the best food in Flagstaff directly across the street.
The original plan was to take a shuttle back to Phoenix from Flagstaff. Gaila and I would move further north. Gaila was enjoying the RV park she was in and my weather was great, so we decided I would continue on to the Grand Canyon and shuttle back from there. 
The next morning I was back on the trail heading up into the San Francisco Peaks. Again, good trail, pine forest, lots of shade, but little water. I assumed I would have forested trail all the way to the Grand Canyon, but that was not to be. I dropped down the second day into arid land again. It was mostly ranch road walking across the Babbitt Ranch and Serengeti-like grassland. 
I was out of water and all the dirt tanks were dry. I finally came to a trail junction and found a note. HazNoHorse was up ahead obviously. He left a note saying there was water 1 mile to the left. Usually I wouldn’t walk 2 miles out of my way for water, but I had no other option. As it turned out, his note said .1 mile. As soon as I turned I could see a cattle chute he mentioned in the note. Immediately I saw a water tank. As I approached the tank, a truck was headed toward me, up the dirt road. I assumed it was the rancher and thought I should wait and ask permission to use his water. As it turned out it was a father and son from Phoenix that had just section hiked the Babbitt Ranch section of the trail. They said they had plenty of water and gave me all I wanted. They even came back and told me to drink some of their bottled water and hydrate up. 
At this same time I had been passed by several mountain bike racers. They were doing the whole Arizona Trail. When they came to areas that did not allow bikes, such as the Grand Canyon, they would throw the bike on their back, put on running shoes and continue on. They were doing 100-150 miles a day. They had headlamps on their helmets so that they could travel at night. Each carried a GPS tracker so race officials could keep track of them. 
They were all asking me about water sources. I was concerned that they were going to suck up any water that Arizona Trail members sometimes leave at trail junctions. When I did find a couple water caches they were all empty. I knew these people were all in Flagstaff drinking beer by now, and peeing my water.
Camped on trail

A few nights I would sleep right on the trail if I couldn’t find a flat spot that wasn’t populated with cactus. I assumed no one was coming through after dark. Now that I had met so many mountain bike racers traveling by headlamp I knew better. I could wake up in the morning with tire tread marks across my face.
I finally made it to the Grand Canyon. I found a site in the hiker/biker campground. They must have decided on this spot because it was solid rock. Hardest place on the whole trail to put up my tent. I had to use rocks, my stakes would not penetrate the ground. I slept next to a couple German kids who had bought a guitar at a pawn shop and were learning to play old John Denver songs. I tried to sleep on my good ear.
I have less than a 100 miles to go. For $66, I shuttled from the Canyon to the Phoenix airport where Gaila picked me up. The day after I left the Canyon, northern Arizona, from Flagstaff to Utah, got hammered with four and a half inches of snow - I dodged that bullet!  Two days later I had a bit of a scare. The morning we were to travel north, I woke up with a stomach ailment like I have never had before. My first thought was Giardia. I had been drinking so much nasty water the last few weeks I figured it had finally caught up with me. I have been careful to treat bad water, but it only takes a small little parasite to raise havoc. It only lasted 24 hours and my retired ER doc friend, Rob, thought it was probably some kind of food poisoning. I wanted Gaila to take me to the Vet and have me put to sleep, but she wouldn’t do it. She hooked up the rig and drove us a couple hundred miles north to Cottonwood, Az. where I recovered for a couple days before I hit the trail again at the Grand Canyon.
Trail sign at the half-way point

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Arizona Trail Part 3

This past 100 miles has been the hottest and driest. I have been doing 25+ mile days because I have been running out of water. I figured out early that the possibility of water caches being available at trailheads was pretty good. Arizona Trail members supply metal cache boxes with gallons of public water. I found three of them on this leg from Oracle to Superior Arizona. Without them it would have been quite miserable. I followed the Gila River for about a dozen miles or so. I could have sucked water from the river, but after looking to the East and seeing all the open pit copper mining it made me wonder if it was full of chemicals and heavy metals. Maybe it would be healthier to just hike thirsty for awhile. I don’t mind sharing water with cattle, or chewing a bit of algae, but I draw the line at glowing in the dark.

Many miles of this section were strictly sun bleached. The only shade available was to have a vulture sit on your face and peck your eyes out. Often while hiking long trails you end up doing miles that are nothing special, just linkage to the spectacular sections. The first 75 miles of this section were like that. It was all worth it when I left the Gila River and made a turn straight north. The last 25 miles snakes through one of the most beautiful canyons in Arizona. Few people visited this region before the trail was established. The guide book said it was perfect habitat for bighorn sheep, mountain lions and gila monsters. I never saw any one of them, but they all saw me, and that is all that matters. I did see my first rattlesnake. I had a couple encounters with large gopher snakes that gave me some practice in doing the “backward two-step trail trot.” On my last day, I was hiking hard because there was a large Hawaiian pizza in Superior, Arizona with my name on it.  Across the trail lay a medium sized Western Diamondback. He wasn’t coiled, just laying across the trail looking irritated that I would happen by just as he was preparing a meal for himself. I didn’t see that he had just killed a nice little pocket mouse and was most likely waiting for it to cook a bit before he devoured it. From my perspective the snake didn’t look all that menacing. But I bet he didn’t even have to bite the mouse. From the mouse’s perspective he must have had a coronary as soon as he ran into this long, cylindrical serpent with a viper head. I took a couple pictures before I poked him with my hiking pole. I wasn’t trying to pick a fight. I have heard most people that die from snake bite have been doing something stupid, like poking with a stick. I just wanted to move him along so I could pass. Instead he cocked back the front end of his body and head into a defensive posture, stuck out his tongue at me, rattled his tail and slowly started into retreat. His butt moved back as far as it could go, then the front end backed over it, still in the spring loaded defensive posture.   When his butt figured out it was out front it slithered back behind again. This went on several times until the snake was up in a tangle of cactus. Having read that a snake can strike the length of it’s body, I still decided to give him a wide berth. Safely past, I finally noticed the fresh kill and the reason he was so irritated with me. He was just anticipating his next meal as much as I was. 

When I get really thirsty on the trail I first start thinking about ice cold water, then ice cold beer, then exotic drinks like a Pina Colada. I have started each day on this section bloating myself with water as soon as I find a source, then filling all water bladders. With over a gallon, I still run out before nightfall. During the day the water I carry gets so hot, it’s like drinking bath water. 
I’m thinking I have beat the worst of the heat now. From Superior I head north to higher elevations. Within the week I should be on the Mogollon Rim into more pine forested areas of Arizona. Finding water will continue to be a problem as it has been such a dry year, but I should need less as the temps drop. 
I’m trying another pair of boots for the next 260 miles to Flagstaff. The Vasque Breeze boots I bought for this hike are not working out. I should have stayed with my habit of buying $20 Walmart boots and adding expensive inserts. To be fair to Vasque, the rocky trails just hammer the soles. I am going to try my heavier soled Keens. I also bought a low-top Walmart, $19.95 trail boot if the Keens do not work out. I have no blister problems, but after 25+ mile days my feet feel like they have gone nine rounds with Ali. 
Doesn’t this sound like fun? If you crave the solitude it’s all worth it. This is not a social trail. Thousands do the AT each year. Hundreds do the PCT. So far I have only run into three other thru-hikers. Two are moving much faster than I am and two much slower. I may never see any of them again. I am averaging one person per one hundred miles in some of the most isolated and beautiful wilderness left in Arizona. Sore feet seem a fair price to pay. I look bad and I smell bad, but I feel good. 
--Keep Smilin’

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Arizona Trail Part 2

I just finished another hundred and fifty miles of the Arizona Trail. Came in to do my taxes, but still need some documents. I figure I will do another hundred and then pay Uncle Sam his due. This section kicked my butt. It was hot, dry and lots of elevation.
When I came in this time I needed IV therapy. Instead of the normal saline fluid I had two IV tubes. One from Dunkin Donuts and one from Red Lobster. My sugar was raised substantially from the chocolate cream-filled Bismarks, and just the smell of the coconut shrimp revived me immediately.  

On my fifth trail day I met an old cowboy from Colorado. He seems to be doing the Arizona Trail on horseback without much advanced planning. I actually met him while filling my water bottle in a nasty dirt pond filled with pretty green algae. His horse was drinking right next to me. Surprising how nasty water can look appealing when you get thirsty enough. I figured it must be good water, his horse was drinking it. I boiled the heck out of it, the floaters were just extra protein.  
He also had a pack horse and two lame dogs. He asked me if I knew where he might buy some dog food and horse feed. Trying to keep the smart ass remarks I was thinking to myself, I just said I hadn’t planned on using either on my hike and had no clue where to find such supplies. I did question him on getting through some trail sections with the dogs. I know the Grand Canyon or the Saguaro National Park will not allow them. He said, “I need to figure me a way around the Canyon.” I said, “It’s kind of big ditch to jump.” There are many sections that are not accessible for stock, because of the steep terrain and rocky makeup of the route. I later heard a rancher helped him with horse feed and the authorities made him send his lame dogs home.
My first day took me into Saguaro National Park. I was thinking it was going to be rather flat geography--wrong. It goes straight up through an incredible Saguaro forested area then to 8000 ft. into a pine forest. Like hiking from Arizona to Canada in one day. Off the backside of Mica Mountain it was a rocky trail back to the basement and another day of hiking in the heat. Ahead I could see the Catalina’s and knew I would be climbing the next day to cross over at Mt. Lemmon. 
The first day I was supposed to stop at the boundary of the Saguaro National Park. I didn’t have a permit to camp overnight in the park. My original plan was to sleep at the fence and scoot through in one day. It’s about 21 miles from border to border. You start at 3,000 feet, climb to 8,600 feet, then out of the park boundary down the other side at about 4,000. I have been doing 25+ mile days so it seemed like a good plan. When I hit the fence it was early in the afternoon, about 85 degrees. I wanted to do the right thing but Woody Guthrie kept singing in my head, “This Land Is Your Land.” So because of Woody’s bad influence on me I started up. It all worked out fine. I had to change my name to Hayden, but just for one day. I’ll explain the name change. Because it was so steep and rocky, there is no place to camp until you reach the first permitted campsite. To get there I climbed almost two hours in the dark with my headlamp. When I arrived I thought I was all alone. I started to throw my pack down next to a log, then noticed it was a body in a sleeping bag. I quietly walked off into the dark to find another site. 

In the morning I met Basa and Norm. They are also thru-hiking the Arizona Trail. I hiked with them that morning, but I will most likely never see them again. They are half my age and half my base weight. At 30+ miles a day they will be freezing up north while I’m still baking in the south. 
Three of them started the trail. All veteran thru-hikers of many long trails. One guy has already dropped out in Tucson. His name was, you guessed it, Hayden. They said if anyone were to ask my name, tell them it’s Hayden. He’s on our permit. I never saw another soul. The only place I have run into other hikers has been coming into popular day hike trailheads. 
The signature of this trail has to be the heat and the sharp rock trails. I just bought a pair of Dr. Sholls gel soles to try in my boots. Now I’m “gelling.” My feet are getting beat up real bad. You can walk for miles on trail that is basically scree about the size of your fist. My Vasque Breeze boots are already showing signs of cracked tread and I have only done a couple hundred miles. Water was another issue on this last stretch. My guide book gives me some indication of where I can expect water, but it is often not there. Especially since this has been a dry year. Yet I never give up hope, there is always “Trail Magic.”
I arrived at a Forest Service Campground called Moline with empty water bags. The 2014 Arizona Guide book promised a water trailer parked at the campground - NOT. I talked to a Forest Service employee. He said, “There’s never been a water trailer here that I know of.” 
Then I met Lance. Actually caught him on the way to the crapper and asked him about water. He turned on his heels and said follow me. Lance and his wife are full-time RVer’s. He said he put his house in the bank and now they live in beautiful places in their Scamp trailer. In the back of his truck he had several jugs of fresh water. I didn’t want to take a whole gallon, but he insisted. He said Basa and Norm came through earlier and he filled them up too. When he headed back for the crapper I could see the halo on top of his head. Lance is a true Trail Angel. 
I have been making a habit of hiking until dark and getting back on the trail just before first light. I need to take advantage of the cool mornings and evening. So far the weather has treated me well. It has been in the 80s, but it could be much hotter. 
The third night I stopped in rocky switchbacks close to the top of Mt. Lemon near the town of Summerhaven. The whole area burned in 2003 taking most structures with it. I was told by locals that this is the first year in fifty that the ski area did not open. Southwestern winter this year has been more like summer. From my perch I was looking down on the geography of light that spread in every direction on the valley floor. It looks like Tucson stretches its florescent fingers north to Phoenix and south to Mexico. 

I hiked into town the next morning hoping with every cell in my body I would find bacon, eggs, hash browns and coffee. First I found a pizza joint, then a new bar/restaurant that must have been opened by relatives of Jesse James. I paid $12.95 for a pulled pork sandwich and a pile of fries. They did fill all my water bags and I was back on the trail and descending all afternoon to the town of Oracle. 
I am still getting used to my new pack and other gear. This new light-weight pack in a one compartment model. I prefer lots of pockets but I’m finding this arrangement convenient as long as everything goes into it’s allotted space. At 16 pounds base weight it is almost as if I have a day pack on when I’m not carrying a gallon of water. I forget how small it all packs down into. I’m reminded when I’m telling other hikers that I’m hiking the whole trail and they think I just have a day pack on. Besides the light weight, I invested in compression dry bags that allow me to reduce the foot print that sleeping bag, pad, clothes and tent take up inside my much smaller pack. 
After eight trail days I’m already familiar with the whole process of packing gear into the real estate it needs to occupy, and I can do it in the dark. Life is good.

--Keep Smilin’

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Arizona Trail Border to Patagonia

I started the Arizona Trail thru-hike with some great trail magic. Trail magic and trail angels are things and people that make a long hike memorable. Gaila and I traveled down near the border to a Forest Service campground I have always wondered about. I could never find any solid information on whether there was a hard road all the way to the campground. It was as close to the border in this part of Arizona as I could find. We drove through Fort Huachuca (Oldest Indian Fighting Fort still in operation), and headed south. The road turned out to be challenging, but paved. The last few hairpin, switchback curves got my attention. When we arrived it was a beautifully maintained primitive campground overlooking Parker Canyon Lake. What a gem. I studied the map and still could not figure out how to get to the border and feel comfortable with leaving Gaila to drive back 18 miles on a dirt road. The area is swarming with Border Patrol, but I just didn’t want to be on the trail worrying about whether she made it back to the campground. The campground was safe, plenty of other campers and two full-time camp hosts. We decided to take a walk through the campground and see if we might find someone planning a side trip to visit the Coronado National Monument which is down the dirt road near the border. The first people we ran into turned out to be Arizona Trail members. They were section hiking the trail. The next morning they were going down to the border to start hiking the first 22.7 miles back to this campground. They had hired a shuttle service from Tucson to take them to the border. They said, “Show up at eight in the morning. We are almost sure he will have extra room.” It worked out perfectly. Great people. Good information. John, the shuttle operator did mostly mountain bike tours, but wanted to check out this road and start offering a hiker shuttle. He couldn’t have been nicer.

 My new hiking friends had already hiked the short section to the border and back on a previous trip from Montezuma Pass where the bus dropped us off. I started south alone into a canyon (1.9 miles) to touch the small monument at the border fence. There I took my first “Selfie”, turned around and headed for Utah.

 The first half of the day was mostly upstroke to the 9,000 foot Miller Peak. These are sky islands. Rising land masses in the middle of rather flat terrain. I could see for miles in all directions early in the day, but by noon a valley dust storm had obscured much of the views. I started up the half-mile spur trail to the very top of Miller Peak but decided quickly that the views would not be worth the price of admission. I like to hike about 25 miles a day, but that is a bit more challenging this time of year. It is all about “time and space.” I like to hike about 2 mph, which includes rest stops and food breaks. That is a pretty easy pace and makes possible the 25 mile day if you have enough daylight. This time of year the sun is on a shorter flight path. I did my 25 that first day, but I finished a half-hour after sunset. I have a good twelve hours of light at this time, and I can squeeze in another half-hour after sunset. In this part of Arizona I wanted to hike until dark-thirty and stealth camp off the trail a distance. That way if illegals were passing through at night, they wouldn’t hear me snoring. Gaila says I snore. I personally have never heard it. The trail is broken up into 43 Passages. When I joined the Arizona Trail Association, I purchased their Arizona National Scenic Trail guidebook that seems, so far, very accurate. I also bought a Garmin Etrex 20 GPS. I was told there were many illegal traffic trails along the southern sections that looked more well-worn than the actual Arizona Trail. The GPS would keep me on the right path. I found that information not accurate. I never needed the GPS the first 25 miles. Never saw a trail that looked confusing or squirrelly. Everything seemed well-marked and made sense when matched to the guidebook data. Water was another concern. So far that has not been a problem. Even though it has been an abnormally hot winter down here, there had been a couple inches of rain the week before I started. I found pools of water in most canyons. The other advantage of hiking 25 mile days is the fact that you find three times the water sources of those hiking 8-10 mile days. I have been carrying about 3 liters of water and so far always have a couple liters left when I find a good water source and top off.
Bathtub Spring--Biggest decision of the day, bathe first or drink first?

The second day I knocked out most of two passages. I did have some route finding issues, but not because of illegal traffic trails. I found myself a couple times hiking with the heifers. Cattle make trails that clone the Arizona Trail. Often they blend so seamlessly you are lulled right into them. Never take obvious for granted. Because I’m blind in one eye I missed the turn in the trail and ended up a half mile down a canyon before realizing I was on a cowpath. I am learning to love my new GPS. It has thousands of waypoints and all 43 tracks of the Arizona Trail downloaded to it. The waypoints will give me various water resources and the tracks will tell me immediately when I am off the trail. You can often hike a couple miles or more without any official trail signage. It is a great feeling to pull the GPS out and know you are still on the correct route. Daniel Boone would be simply amazed.

All during the second day I could hear what I assumed was a drone flying around the many canyons ahead of me. At one high point I took some time to spot it, but it and the sound was illusive. I also spotted a few electronic devices with my good eye. They were attached to fenceposts. Big Brother is definitely watching this geography down here. I made a great investment this fall that is paying off handsomely now. I bought a lot of new high-tech gear that allowed me to lose at least 11 lbs. of ugly gear. My pack base weight dropped from 27 pounds to 16 pounds. What a difference. It has also allowed me to carry more (heavy) water, without much effort. Hiking last year in Colorado with a bunch of young CDT hikers I started picking their brains about gear. Some were carrying as little as 7 pounds base weight. Yes, you read that right. (One guy, trail name Raisins, was appropriately named because that’s all he ate.) I’m not there yet. Probably never will be. They admit they are often miserable, but the trade-off is the ability to hike 30-35 mile days. There are things I still refuse to give up: Hot food, ground sleeping pad, zippered sleeping bag and enclosed tent. My tent is a Hilleberg, Akto. It is a bomb shelter. It weighs 3 lbs 13 oz., at least twice what ultra lightweight backpackers carry, theirs only being a tarp. But I sleep like a baby. Like Charleston Heston said about his rifle, they are going to have to take my Akto tent, “From my cold, dead hand.”
Who's the best looking guy on the trail? "The shadow knows!"

Knowing I was going to meet Gaila at the Gathering Grounds cafe in Patagonia, AZ for breakfast I was a little impatient for sunrise. I started packing up in the dark about five o’clock. I had another six trail miles into town and I didn’t want to keep my bacon and eggs waiting. I used my little headlamp to follow tread until the sun began peeking over the peaks. Great trail so far, beautiful country, lots of wildlife. As my good friend Mike Schlins would say, “This is sucking the juice out of life.”
--Keep Smilin’

Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Big Easy

This is not your typical New Orleans, Chamber of Commerce, Jazz center of the earth, marketing piece. Since sprawling urban centers are not my idea of a good time I was just along for the ride. I was the taxi driver that made everyone nervous, until they rode with a real French Quarter taxi driver. Then I didn’t seem so bad.  We parked the motorhome in the Treme, just a couple blocks from the French Quarter. I took notice of the spikes and razor wire adorning the top of the brick wall that enclosed our RV park. I guess we were going to spend the week in the demilitarized zone. We actually ended up walking into the French Quarter day and night, without becoming part of the cities statistics. 

Walking down to Bourbon Street on a Saturday night is like going to the circus. Everyone is walking around with a Grenade or a Hurricane, which is a category 5 drink that can make you blow a 1.7 on the Breathalyzer. Most people here believe the liver is evil and must be punished. I know they say it is the birthplace of Jazz, and we did take in some really great music, like Kermit Ruffins, but it is also home to the fashion challenged. It was actually ironic that there was a Mary Kay convention in town. That might seem like too much makeup, but it can’t hold a candle to the over painted, the over feathered, the over beaded and the over indulged.  What if we had visitors from another galaxy and they just happened to land here, in the middle of the French Quarter. What would they think? Maybe they have already been here and left in disgust. Or, maybe they never left. Maybe this is them. 

Katrina did a tremendous amount of damage to New Orleans. In the French Quarter they still haven’t found their tables. Every place we went in to hear music we had to stand. Fifteen dollar cover charge to wedge yourself into a sea of humanity to listen to talented black musicians, blow soul through brass instruments and watch fat white people, who can’t dance, jiggle around.

On Sunday we walked into the French Quarter early in the morning. Water gushing, street sweeper trucks were flushing the streets. Residents were hosing down their sidewalks. The pungent smell in the air a mixture of garbage and puke.  The 1,600 miles of pipe that make up the Big Easy gravity collection, sanitary sewerage system, dumps its treated water into the Mighty Mississippi. That might help explain why the Gulf of Mexico has an 8,000 sq. mile Dead Zone stretching out from the mouth of the Big Muddy. 

Which, of course, brings me to the famous seafood everyone flocks here to sample. I admit, I am not a seafood lover. If cows could swim, I would be a fisherman. I am more of a meat and potato Irishman. That said, I did try to find some middle ground as we patronized many of the cities eateries. The first thing I realized was the connection between the cities excessive drinking and excessive eating. They have to keep you half in the bag so that the prices on the menu seem normal. The way I figure, the hot sauce is to kill whatever it is they put in that Jambalaya.  After a lot of search and research I did find a hamburger joint on Bourbon Street. I had a great hamburger there, smothered in fried onions. Unfortunately, the milkshake machine was on the fritz. A couple days later Gaila and I rode the trolley out to the Garden District. We met a couple walking on the street at our same pace. They were native New Orleanians. They told us where we could walk and where we shouldn’t. According to them, a couple blocks south from this beautiful, historic, seemingly safe section of the city, you go from serene to sirens very quickly. We stuck to the main trolley lines and found the best food in all of New Orleans - Phil’s Grill. You build your own hamburger from scratch. They give you a full sheet of paper with options and you become your own hamburger architect. Not only that, but the milkshake machine worked. 

Visiting New Orleans was an experience, I will admit. I enjoyed all the walking and gawking. One night I drove Gaila and a friend we met to Frenchmen Street to here music. I couldn’t find a place to park, with any promise that my car would still be there when I returned, so I drove back to our RV park and walked back through the Quarter. I noticed that a lot of the homeless people have dogs. So the mystery for me is, “What end of the leash do all these piles of scat I see on the sidewalk come from?” This incubator of  American Culture is a perfect example of the simple math problem that faces us all. “Multiply numbers -- Divide resources.  The recipe for disaster here is quick and easy to understand. Start with 400,000 residents, mix in nine million tourists annually, place in a bowl two feet below sea level and add copious amounts of water, lightly salted. So, after a week of sleeping under I-10, at eighty bucks a night, I’m ready for Padre Island National Seashore and Big Bend National Park where the animals are less dangerous and the night sky clear and quiet. --Keep Smilin’