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’