AZT Day 3: Ponderosas & Pavement

Today’s miles: 13 (approximate)

Total miles: 33.2

The temperatures overnight are low enough that Cyn sleeps poorly, waking in the early hours to put on their puffy jacket. The morning sun is very slow to reach us through the thick pine forest, and in the stubbornly cold air, my hands struggle to roll up the tent and pack my things. It’s a morning for brisk hiking, curling my fingers into my sleeves, trying to warm up from the inside out. Of course as soon as the sunlight hits us, I feel overly warm. I know this is just a prelude to the extremes I’ll experience when I reach the Sonoran in a few weeks.

We’re still on dirt road this morning, and it’s not too challenging. “Would you rather,” I inquire, “hike an all-day gradual uphill like we’re doing now, or have one super steep, terrible but short uphill and then flat and gentle down the rest of the day?” We debate the merits of each option, enjoying easy walking and easy conversation until, at one of the many small junctions, I look at the detour map and realize I’ve missed a turn. We’re off trail. I do not want to break this news to Cyn, and reluctantly do so with many, many apologies. We backtrack. I estimate this mistake has added maybe a mile and a half to our day — not insignificant, but at least it’s on a road of decent quality, with a gradual downhill back to our actual turnoff. Back on the actual detour, we hike a little network of more dirt roads, reasonably gentle until just before our shortcut begins, when the road turns steeply uphill. We’re both tired and ready for a snack break, and we fall into our old pattern near the end of mountain passes, where I feel compelled to put on a burst of speed so I can get to the top, and Cyn instead thinks “okay, there’s the top up there, I can chill out.” So I’ve already begun to set out snack items when they meet me after the climb. We eat second breakfast on the side of the road and then head off on this shortcut to finally rejoin the AZT.

Making a ridiculous face during our roadside second breakfast.

It’s fun to observe the gradual shift in flora as we gain a bit of elevation each day. We’re among the tall pines now, and I press my face against the bark and inhale that sweet vanilla scent of a Ponderosa pine. Oh, I’d missed that smell. We stop for Cyn to treat blisters, and for me to dig a cathole. The heat of the day is upon us now, but there’s just one more mile to Highway 89A, where we’ll take a side trip to Jacob Lake for real food and cold drinks. Unfortunately, the two-mile side trip is a fairly miserable experience. Walking the hot pavement is hell on the feet, and we’re both annoyed by the road’s constant undulations, and by having to continually move into the ditch to make room for cars. I go into road-walking mode, a skill I recently honed on the PNT, and just place my mind elsewhere, one foot in front of the other. [Toby does much better at this than me, though he also got so much practice in Washington. I whined the whole way, mostly internally but not always. -Cyn]

Cyn among the pines, before the paved road slog.

At last, we cross a highway and arrive at the Jacob Lake inn and restaurant. This isn’t a town, just a tiny little roadside stop. There’s a ranger office next to the restaurant, but it’s closed for the season and even the water fountains are shut off. Cyn collapses on a shaded picnic table with our packs while I run inside to order our food. Almost no one is wearing a mask inside. I’m not psyched about it, and it makes the wait for our food feel even longer. But my crankiness evaporates at first bite. Burgers! Fries! Giant cup of Sprite! (Cyn also ordered a side salad; I couldn’t be bothered.) [It was the most basic side salad but tasted amazing. Fresh veggies! Ranch dressing! – Cyn] Everything tastes wildly delicious, and we lounge at the picnic table until my belly has digested enough for me to return to the lobby to charge my phone and external battery.

There is a teeny little convenience store attached to the restaurant, with an even teenier counter selling enormous freshly baked cookies. We each buy snacks to top up our food bags, plus some cookies and apple juices (obviously) for this evening. My heart wants one of the huge milkshakes I see a few people carrying, but I guess my stomach is detrained because my gut says no. (Honestly though, even writing this months later I still regret not ordering one. Never pass up a milkshake!) We are allowed to fill our bottles at the self-serve soda machine’s water spout, but our liter bottles are too tall to fit, so we have to use my small Gatorade bottle and then carefully pour into the tall ones. It takes forever, and the store is absolutely packed with people from a tourist bus that just arrived, and the whole scenario is very claustrophobic and uncomfortable. We’re both relieved to get out of there.

The return roadwalk is much better: the uphills don’t feel as tough, the temps are dropping a bit, and our bodies feel restored by town food calories. We turn back onto the AZT at the Orderville trailhead (Orderville Canyon, we learned from a trail sign this morning, was named after a Mormon Church cooperative that ranched in this area in the late 1880s). Worn out from a long hot day, we follow a rough dirt road into the pines just until we can locate a safe flat spot to camp. Shortly after I get the tent up, my belly complains, and I have to lie down before I can eat dinner. Coyotes howl in the distance as the sun sets and we snuggle into our quilts.

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