AZT Day 5: Pushing On

Today’s miles: 16.2

Total miles: 62.1

Anticipating an amazing sunrise view, I’m up and out of the tent very early, shivering in the cool morning air and eating a breakfast bar while dawn breaks on the Vermillion Cliffs in the distance. Cyn slept poorly again and only peeks out of the tent door briefly [I guess I didn’t actually sleep well every night of this trip, as I claimed on day one. But I still slept way better than usual. -Cyn] . There is absolutely no tree cover here, so we must make our morning bathroom trips in full view of the trail, hoping no one comes along this early.

We’re out of camp before 7am, continuing through this burn area but looking ahead to orange and yellowish aspen groves that glow brightly in the morning sun. The burn stretches on forever, and near the end we find some nice flat spots in a shallow depression, but the ground is covered in fresh cowpies. This all confirms that we made a good decision to camp where we could manage last night. We reach healthy trees again at last, and as we move through them Cyn suddenly shrieks and jumps back. A cow startles and runs through the trees. “I thought it was a bear!” they gasp, and we both double over in laughter [In my defense, it was black and I couldn’t see its head when I jumped. -Cyn].

Cyn in the morning light, not far from our campsite.

At Telephone Hill trailhead, it’s a nice surprise to find public water cached in the bear box. Frequent trailheads are a design feature of the AZT, making the trail remarkably accessible for day hikes and caching water, even if some of the roads to reach trailheads require sturdy, high-clearance vehicles. We eat second breakfast here on the edge of a dirt road, solemnly noting a sun-bleached spine nearby. We take only one liter each from the water cache.

As we hike on, I feel good: the trail through here is nice and easy, the temperature is mild, and it looks like we have three water sources ahead. So far we’ve taken water from concrete wildlife drinkers, but this afternoon our water will be from “tanks.” One might reasonably infer that tanks are some sort of structure, but no. They’re just large, shallow, muddy ponds. According to the map, we pass the first tank around 10:30am, but I can’t see it. Eventually we realize it’s that big dip in the landscape over there, completely dry and filled in with grasses. Welp. The second tank has plenty of muddy water, which Cyn makes several attempts to gather. Unfortunately there are aggressive yellowjackets swarming the entire perimeter, so neither of us can successfully reach the water. [Also, this tank has the worst smell I’ve ever smelled. Like someone had dumped a truckload of dead room temperature fish in there at least a week ago. I’m not sure if I’d have been able to drink it even if I did manage to brave the yellowjackets. -Cyn] We decide to try our luck at the third tank, about half a mile ahead. We can come back to this one if the third isn’t viable.

Me with beautiful early fall colors.

At the third tank, my spirits sink. There’s probably a little water in there, but if so it’s under a thick layer of plants and algae. We find some shade and have a serious discussion over snacks. Neither of us wants to backtrack or deal with those yellowjackets, and neither of us feels psyched about the “water” in this tank. Finally, I say tenatively, “There is a third option…” and Cyn seems to already know what I’m going to suggest: “We could just push on to the next source.” This entails nearly eight more miles, including two short but steep climbs, and would make this Cyn’s highest mileage day ever. But we feel confident about the next source, a wildlife drinker that recent trail notes describe as excellent water. I leave the final decision up to Cyn, who decides to go for it.

We hike with purpose the next two miles in the midday heat, sharing stories about our college years to take our minds off the heat and the first climb. After a shady lunch break it’s down and flat through a beautiful valley, even if the utter lack of shade has me sweating and trudging a bit. Right before the second climb we find a little copse of trees to sit under, eating sugary snacks to prep our legs for uphill hiking. Cyn’s belly is feeling icky again, a sign of anxiety about this upcoming climb. The solution? Putting in the earbuds with Lil Nas X’s new album [It had come out weeks ago but I saved it for just this reason and that was an A+ decision. -Cyn].

Cyn finishing their highest mileage day ever!

The music works like a charm, and we are soon finished climbing for the day. Now it’s more down and flat, first through forest and then into a wide meadow. Cyn, still listening to Lil Nas X, suddenly turns around full of emotion and hugs me: “I’m having a moment, I’ll tell you later!” [“Sun Goes Down” started playing right as we entered a beautiful clearing. That song hits a nerve and I am overwhelmed with gratitude to be alive and having this experience. -Cyn] A large raptor (perhaps a goshawk?) circles overhead as we cross the meadow and move through trees again. At last, we reach another small meadow and locate our water source. As promised, it’s excellent water (as water in wildlife drinkers goes). I make several trips to fill up, and then pitch the tent at the far end of the meadow while Cyn filters. Even several blisters cannot dampen Cyn’s feeling of accomplishment for hiking over 16 miles today. To celebrate, we share a package of poptarts after dinner, and are happily in the tent by 6pm, the night air growing very cold around us.

We hiked 16+ miles for this. Reader, I know it looks disgusting, but it was the best water we’d had the whole trip so far.
How one’s legs look when you hike in a place without any water to spare.

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