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.