AZT Day 13: Gale Force

Today’s miles: 23.4

Total miles: 174.9

It’s a warm night. Just before I drop off to sleep, I hear the crunch crunch of a hiker’s footsteps on the trail nearby, the sound fading as the person hikes on. At dawn, a lone coyote howls until a few others finally join in. The morning sky is cloudy, making for a spectacular sunrise. I’m on trail by 6:45am, hiking fast on easy trail to the boundary sign marking my exit out of South Kaibab National Forest. Soon after, an AZT sign informs me that I’m now entering a section named for Babbit Ranch, and as I hike I contemplate the private/company name attached to this portion of the trail.

The sky is increasingly thick with clouds, and I start to wonder if it really will rain. By 9am I’ve done more than six miles, and stop for second breakfast. There is enough cell service here to text Cyn and ask for a weather forecast: probable afternoon showers. Well, at least I know in advance. I pick up the pace, hiking speedily toward the distant view of the San Francisco peaks near Flagstaff, keeping my eyes especially on Mt Humphreys with its snow cap.

I should be in those mountains tomorrow.

Around 11am, the wind begins. It’s constant, and hard to ignore. I stop for an early lunch when I find a solitary wide juniper tree that creates a windbreak — the landscape here is wide open, nothing else to serve as any kind of shelter. When I start hiking again I realize how lucky I was to have that juniper, because the landscape is just a huge flat expanse now. This continues, with wind, for several miles. I cross under a set of power lines, passing a small water cache labeled for public use starting tomorrow, and dwell on water politics for a bit.

The wind. It is relentless. There’s absolutely nothing to block it. I turn off onto a wide dirt road with a cattle ranch in the distance, and suddenly have to scramble off-trail for an emergency poop. There is a small scrubby juniper that I try to crouch behind, but it offers essentially no cover at all. I wish fervently that no one will appear, and try to be speedy. Back on the dirt road, I fight the wind again, passing through a gate and hiking a gradual uphill. Cows stare at me as I pass. The trail levels out and then goes way downhill to Tub Ranch, where the ranchers let hikers take water from a big metal tank. I skip this source, though, sure that I have enough.

Miles and miles of unchecked wind this afternoon.

Down here, the wind hits a whole new level, whipping around me. I turn onto the long road toward the next trailhead and meet Two Gallon, a section hiker heading northbound. He tells me he left five gallons of public water and some Halloween candy in the bear box ahead. The wind along this road is ferocious. For four miles, hiking directly into it, I fight to stay upright. My clothes are flattened against my body, and though my sunhat is cinched as tight as it will go, I still have to hold it on with one hand. Even with my glasses on, my eyes can barely withstand the rushing air to look up, and I mostly tuck my head and keep my gaze on the trail at my feet. I’m so sick of the noise. The trail shifts from flat to a hard uphill, and I am suddenly exhausted.

Dirt road walking near Tub Ranch, rain clouds moving in.

About a mile and a half from the trailhead, rain finally joins the driving wind. I hike as fast as my legs can take me, just hoping I can find a smidge of shelter at the trailhead. I meet three section hikers heading out northbound, who tell me there’s no tree cover for at least another five miles (augh) but that I am heading away from the rain (whew). At the trailhead, I take cover by wedging myself between some small junipers by the bear box, grabbing a liter of water and a few pieces of candy to supplement my snack. As I’m tightening down my rain jacket and preparing to hike on, a car drives up with two more nobo section hikers caching water. One of them, Deuce, hypes me up for tomorrow when I’ll head into the San Francisco peaks, and he raves about the Sky Islands near the southern end of the trail (Mica Mountain is steep, he says seriously, and I wonder how it will compare to some of the mountains I hiked in Washington a few months ago).

The trail makes a hard turn here, so now the wind and rain are at my back. The mud cakes onto my shoes again, and I clump heavily down this dirt road. I want to do more miles today, but I see some clusters of junipers up above the trail and suspect this is my only shot at marginal wind cover for the night. A large hare sprints between the trees as I drag my mud-crusted shoes around, looking for a relatively flat spot. Of course, the rain stops right after I finally get the tent up. I eat dinner overlooking the large cow field below, hoping the cows won’t be a nuisance in the night.

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