AZT Day 16: Racing the Storm

Today’s miles: 16.8

Total miles: 231.3

In the morning, I talk to my analyst and eat my chef’s salad, plus chips and a package of Ho-Hos from the gas station. I can never seem to eat enough lately. I leave the hotel right before check-out time and walk across the street to a different, larger gas station convenience store — there are real grocery stores in Flagstaff, of course, but the thought of walking a mile or more each way does not appeal. I cobble together a perfectly fine resupply at the gas station and sit on the curb outside to repackage a few things into my ziplock bags. By 11:30am, I’m walking out of town, planning to do about 12 miles today to an area that looks likely for camping.

The weather reports are all ominous about a big snow storm today, but as I shift from sidewalks to trail, it’s clear sunny skies as far as I can see, just windy. Once I connect back to the main AZT, I’m hiking at a good clip and enjoying the weather and the pines all around me. I pass someone who looks like a thru-hiker, heading in the opposite direction, and she asks which trail I’m on. “I’m also on the AZT,” she says, “but we’re off trail right now, that’s why I’m backtracking.” Oh? I consult my map. Yep, missed a hard left turn back there. We get back on track and head uphill together, chatting. Her name’s Cool Beans, and we find we have many things in common, including both having gone to UC Davis, loving books, and being older than most other thru-hikers we encounter.

Clear skies outside of Flagstaff.

After a snack break, I hike ahead of her for a bit. I’m stopped briefly by a huge herd of elk just ahead, spread out along both sides of the trail. There must be at least 20 of them, one with giant antlers. I want to give them plenty of space, so I just move very slowly until a few of them spot me, which sets off a chain reaction, all of them loping away in a cluster, quickly fading from view. I can still smell their musty scent as I walk through the space they just left.

Deceptively mild sky in this direction, with no sheltered places to camp.

Cool Beans catches up to me at a trailhead where there are several campers and RVs, and lots of cows. We soon reach a second trailhead, where I’d planned to camp, but it doesn’t look very promising, so I decide to push on until I find something better. The wind picks up now, with some huge gusts. In the distance, clouds are coming in. The landscape is very flat and exposed, and I don’t find anything that would offer cover for camping in a windy, possibly stormy night. By the afternoon, it’s only three miles to the place where Cool Beans plans to camp, so I decide to just join her. We get some views way down below of Lake Mary. You can’t tell from this vantage point, but I know from the drive Cyn and I took to the Cabin Loop that Lake Mary is very, very long.

Looking down over the lake. Darker clouds slowly approaching.

It’s getting cold now, and the wind is continuous and very strong. I’m starting to tire of listening to it. Another large herd of elk stands near the junction to Lakeview Campground. I speak quietly, encouraging them to move on, and they disappear as rapidly as the previous herd did. We could camp around here, but the weather’s making us both anxious, so we take the junction and hurry downhill toward Lakeview. There are several established car campgrounds in this region, but my trail guide suggests they’ve just closed for the season, so I’m not holding out hope for pit toilets or running water, just for a sheltered place to put up my tent. As I rush downhill, I feel comforted by the long descent — hopefully camping low will protect us from the worst of the storm.

At the campground, we find the privy locked and the faucet turned off, as expected. But there are some nice flat spots for camping. I pitch my tent under a sturdy, healthy tree, throw on my puffy jacket, and meet Cool Beans at a picnic table for a quick dinner as the last of the daylight fades. It’s cold. The storm is imminent. Just as we’re each about to get into our tents, a truck drives up in the dark. I can’t quite make out the insignia on the door — maybe state parks? Something official. The driver gets out and says “Hey, you know this campground is closed, right?” Cool Beans asks innocently, “What does that mean?” and I stifle a giggle before explaining that we needed a safe place to camp during the storm. When he learns that we’re thru-hikers and will be gone in the morning, he just tells us to be safe, and drives away. (Another example of the exceptions granted to hikers, as it seems to me that he initially took us for squatters.) As the wind begins to howl above us, I double-check my stakes, strap my quilt down, put on all my layers, and snuggle in for what promises to be a long, cold night.

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