AZT Day 4: Gos and Mabel

Today’s miles: 12.7

Total miles: 45.9

We wake up to a pleasant morning. It’s not as cold as yesterday and wispy clouds surround the moon. The first five miles of the day are uneventful but also pleasant — a gentle uphill through a forest and aspen groves, which are just starting to yellow (since an aspen grove is actually one organism the leaves change color simultaneously). Toby falls in love with these trees instantly and seems just as delighted every time we walk through a grove. We then see a large hawk and stop to absorb it — it’s gorgeous and so powerful when it spreads out its wings to fly away.

Wild flowers on our morning walk through the forest.
Toby, thrilled to be walking through the first aspen grove of many.

We carry on on after the hawk sighting and shortly arrive at a campground. An informational sign pictures a goshawk and says we are in an area containing the largest breeding population in the lower 48. We realize that is the hawk we just saw and are thrilled. We had both recently read H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald, a beautiful memoir about her attempts to train a goshawk to hunt as a way of coping with her father’s death. It feels magical to have stumbled upon one entirely by accident.

Trail sign in the beautiful morning sun.

And the moment gets more magical when, tipped off by our gps app, we find hoped-for trail magic in a bear box in the campground. Soda! I bust open a coke can and drink the whole thing in minutes. It’s not cold but oh so delicious. [This was indeed very exciting, and Cyn’s first trail magic experience! –Toby]

We are off again, hiking just below a major road that curves around on the rise above us. I am disappointed to be so close to the sound of cars, but it is what it is. Eventually we stop for lunch and water. Toby goes to the concrete trough and braves swarms of yellowjackets gathered there. The soda is coming back to bite me, I think, and I have to lie down because my stomach aches. I leave some ramen out to cold soak while I do, hoping that my stomach can handle simple carbs for lunch. After about half an hour kind of napping I am able to eat but it’s still not great. [Around this time we also finally remembered that the band name we’d both been stumped by all morning was Spin Doctors. An enormous relief. It’s amazing (a) what kinds of songs randomly pop into your head while hiking and (b) how frustrating it is to be unable to look up a simple question on the internet. –Toby] [I had been singing “One two princes kneel before you” for hours and I think Toby was about to lose it. -Cyn] We’re thinking about taking off when a pickup truck pulls up the dirt road and stops at the trough. Someone gets out and stands in the truck bed, holding an antenna in the air. We speculate about why and guess they must be tracking some kind of animal that’s been tagged.

Some nice colors for midday walking.
Lunch break with two convenient tree stumps for furniture.

After lunch we have steep but short descent into a valley. We walk through the bottom of the valley among fully-yellow aspen. It’s pretty down there but it also seems like we didn’t really need to go downhill — we joke that the trail designers decided we just needed some elevation change and threw it in. Everything has been pretty mild after the first day.

Yellow aspen breaking up the green.
Fossil! There were a bunch of these on the valley floor.

We climb out and it feels so much harder than the maybe 1/3 mile of uphill walking than it is. I am huffing and puffing and internally chastise my body for the dozenth time on this trip for having such a hard time at elevations over 6,000 feet. We pause at the top to look at the topo map and start stressing about camp spots. There is nothing flat on either side of the trail and the map shows us that the terrain is not likely to change anytime soon. We spend the next few miles scrutinizing every somewhat flat spot, wondering if it’s big enough for our tent, which it never is. [We were in a miles-long burn stretch that had started regrowth, and even where there were flat areas, they were covered by shrubby brush and other low-lying spiky plants. Very frustrating. —Toby]

Finally I point to something that is just 20 feet from the trail, more visible from the road than we want, and is very lumpy ground. But it has enough space for our tent if we clear a bunch of burned out logs and other debris. Toby isn’t thrilled and hikes ahead a little to see if anything else looks good but he comes back empty handed so we make it work. I offer to pitch the tent since Toby is grumpy. And I must quote directly from Toby’s notes on the day here, which say “Cyn pitches tent super well, best pitch of trip — first try.” This is maybe the highest backpacking compliment I could hope to get from him. And it’s accurate, if I do say so myself. [It was a great pitch on really tough ground cover. I will say I did a lot of extra walking to find heavy rocks to weigh down the stakes, which helped me work out some of my grumpies. –Toby]

The tent site is between the trail and a drop off. We pick our way carefully to the drop — there is so much debris on the ground and it feels risky to be walking around at all given that we are in rattlesnake country. We sit on some burned out stumps and looked off into the distance. I check the map and realize we are looking at the vermillion cliffs and therefore at where we started the hike. It seems so incredibly far and we walked here! I point out that the sun will come up over those cliffs and the morning will be beautiful. Toby decides to stop being grumpy about our site and sits with me, taking in the view.

Hazy picture of the Vermillion Cliffs.

We snuggle into the tent [the floor not quite as lumpy as I thought it would be –Toby] and two bees get trapped between the tent and the fly. We name them Mabel and Gos, after the goshawks in MacDonald’s book. But the buzzing gets to us after a while so we beat the tent walls to try to encourage them to fly down and out. Eventually it works and we are able to drop off to sleep.

Excellent pitch on exposed lumpy ground.

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