Toby and I have a few days together before my flight back to Illinois. We lay in our hotel bed in Tusayan trying to decide what to do with that time. We think about driving up to Grand Staircase Escalante, but find it overwhelming to try to plan that trip with just what we can find on our phones in one day. Instead, Toby locates a loop trail in Coconino National Forest, about an hour and a half south of Flagstaff. It seems chill and popular with locals, which is always a good sign.
So the next day we pack up the car and head back to Flagstaff to stock up on some food and supplies. We have done tub laundry so the smell situation is less dire, but my hiking shirt is a biohazard so we stop at REI for a new one. We hit a grocery store for more backpacking food, and then stop for burgers at a local takeout place and they are amazing. I surprise myself and order a veggie burger, which I realized I was really craving. Maybe having been in the dry desert for so long is making me way to eat as much plant matter as possible because all I ever want in towns is giant salads. The burger also has pineapple and green chiles and cheese and caramelized onions and omg I am drooling now just thinking about it.
The trailhead is accessible after 10 miles of gravel road of varying quality and I stress the whole time about the rental car getting stuck or damaged but we make it fine. It’s late afternoon so we just hike a couple miles in and camp, happy to be back outside. That night we are kept up by a sound that neither of us can identify. It is like a high-pitched screech that happens at regular intervals. At some point I decide it must be some kind of rusty windmill that turns all night.
The next day starts with a steep downhill and then a short but very steep up and I am dismayed to find that I am struggling to catch my breath now that we’re back up around 6 or 7,000 feet. But overall this is just very easy, pleasant trail with relatively few other people and again, we feel like we are in our natural element, walking with everything we need to live strapped to our backs.
The second night we camp well off trail and before we fall asleep Toby remembers that a friend had told him something about elk bugling being a common sound at night in Arizona. What do elk really sound like, though? Do they really sound like a rusty gate squealing shut? But yes, they do sound almost exactly like that. And they sound like that All. Goddamn. Night. We are also “lucky” enough to hear an elk bark in the middle of the night when a herd moves through right by our tent and scares the crap out of me. I shake Toby awake thinking it is some kind of mountain lion noise but then we hear their footsteps thudding on the ground and decide we are safe enough. [Just want to stress here that if you have never heard an elk bark, it is a very alarming sound in the pitch dark at midnight. I’m pretty good at accepting the nighttime sounds on trail, but I have no idea what is making this noise, and man, it’s close. –Toby]
This trail has options to make it longer or shorter, and we decide to hike back to the car after the second night so that we can spend a little more time by the Grand Canyon before Toby gets back on trail. We drive back to Flagstaff again and stay in a creepy hotel that we have chosen mostly because we can do real laundry. That night we get some pretty great Mexican food and watch Twister in our actually-clean clothes. [And look up videos of elk noises on our phones. –Toby]
We drive back to the Grand Canyon where we’ve managed to score a little cottage in the park just steps from the Rim. That day we take a leisurely stroll on the South Rim Trail, heading west away from the crowds. This hike is obviously less dramatic than our Rim-to-Rim hike but it is still awe inducing and Toby and I love watching the subtle changes that appear as our perspective slowly shifts with our walk. [We learn about the Orphan Mine that was active in this part of the canyon starting in the late 1800s. In the early 1950s it rapidly became one of the largest uranium mines in the U.S., which eventually resulted in a multi-million dollar effort to restore the land and water contaminated by radioactive materials. There is still at least one contaminated water source on the less-traveled South Rim trails that hikers are warned not to drink. –Toby]
The second day at the Canyon is dramatic with huge, loud thunderstorms rolling overhead most of the day. We take advantage of a break in the afternoon to walk a mile to the general store and gather food for Toby for the next stretch of his hike [I also buy thick fleece gloves and ship some clothes ahead to a friend in Tucson for the end of my trip. –Toby]. But otherwise we hole up in our cabin watching bad tv, eating, and, for me, crying since I can’t imagine saying goodbye to Toby again for over a month after spending these weeks feeling so close and connected.
But the next morning arrives and it is beautiful, luckily for Toby. I drop him off at the South Rim visitor’s center where he will continue south, hiking back to Flagstaff on this next stretch. I spend my day in the northern Arizona wilderness, first taking another harrowing dirt road drive to drop off some water for Tobes and leave trail magic for other hikers in a bear box on trail. After that I drive to a trailhead just north of Flagstaff, where Toby found a ten mile loop that is apparently well-traveled and well-marked. A short stretch of the loop is on the AZT and I stash some water here as well to give Tobes a boost on his last stretch into Flagstaff. And then I go for my very first solo hike on a new-to-me trail.
The first few miles of the trail are easy to follow but then the trail is crossed by so many other trails and cow paths that I think the guy who left the comment online that said “It’s so easy to follow – just keep going left” must have been talking about some other trail entirely. It turns out that the internet is sometimes a liar. I’m never fully lost because I know I can turn around and get back to the car but I am not at all confident about where I am in relation to the trail I’m supposed to be on. The elevation kicks up to 8,000 feet and I feel so dizzy that I have to sit for a few minutes. I panic a little and am mad at myself for having such a hard time doing this on my own. But I keep going and eventually find a logging road that I’m not sure is the actual trail but seems to be headed in the right direction. Finally, after walking so far downhill that I dread the idea of having to backtrack the way I came if I can’t figure this out, there is a sign marking my trail and all is well. I cruise along for another four easy miles, stepping off to the side for the many mountain bikers that seem to have come out for a ride after school or work. And finally I am back at the car and feel relieved, and a weird combination of pride and embarrassment.
It’s 3 p.m. and I am starving so I go straight to the burger place that Toby and I loved last week, order the exact same delicious thing, and then hide in my hotel room until 5 a.m. when I get back on a flight to Champaign. I am shocked to see the flat of the corn desert after so long away but am happy to be home. And even happier for Toby to hike his butt off and settle back in after his long season of travel.