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’