AZT Day 18: Muddy Paws

Today’s miles: 26.2

Total miles: 262.5

I wake up early to talk to my analyst. Dawn is just starting to break when we hang up. I eat a few snacks, finish packing my pack, and suit up for a cold morning. My weather app says it’s 21 degrees when I leave. I’m wearing my puffy jacket, my rain jacket, a buff in the style of a balaclava, and my big fleece gloves. Let’s do this, I guess.

It takes me a few minutes to find the connector trail out of Mormon Lake, and then more time to adjust to walking on the frozen ground. A lot of snow melted yesterday afternoon, but froze overnight in the many divots created by horse and elk hoofprints, leaving little pockets of slick ice all over the trail. I crunch my way uphill and am sweating in all these layers just half a mile in. I stop to put my puffy in my pack and Levon passes by. He hikes faster than me.

Dawn light filtering through to the frozen trail.

In another half mile, I rejoin the AZT and trek along some rolling terrain. The ground is very icy. Sometimes it’s great because the crunchiness provides traction. Other times, where the trail is smooth, its slipperiness slows me down. The woods are partially covered in snow, and it’s beautiful out here. I leapfrog Levon, who’s removing some layers.

Snowy morning beauty.

I pass through a gate made of wooden posts and wire—this is cattle country and there are many gates along the trail, always with signs instructing us to keep them closed—but this one is so tightly put together that I can’t get the post back into the wire loop. After some struggle, I’m glad to see Levon arrive. It takes both of us straining to close the gate. Geez.

A bit later we find Cool Beans finishing a snack break, and hike more or less in a group until we hit the Gooseberry Springs trailhead. I decide to stop and eat here while the others continue. By now the sun is fully out and everything is melting. It’s great hiking weather, but the trail has turned to mud. The next couple of hours are exasperating. Thick mud that sticks to my shoes and picks up debris and spatters more mud on the back of my pants. Often the mud is paired with extremely rocky trail. I’m relieved when I catch up to Cool Beans sitting on a log and eating lunch, glad to stop and reset.

Muddy mid-day trail, oof.

My Achilles’ tendon is hurting again, for reasons I can’t determine. I grit my way through, periodically stretching my calves, grateful for conversation with Cool Beans to distract me. At our last snack break, I stretch some more and take ibuprofen, which I’ve hardly used at all this hiking season. We’ve got 5.7 miles to a potential campsite now. We hike through some burn areas and my tendon feels considerably better, though I’m still aware of it. These miles go by surprisingly quickly for me, and at the place we thought we might camp, we decide to keep going instead. It’s only 4:30, and two more miles would put us at 25 AZT miles for the day (plus the extra mile on the connector trail this morning). This is now the most miles I’ve ever hiked in one day.

Following Cool Beans through a short burn section.

We make short work of these last two and find some flat spots under the pine trees for our tents. A few cows wander nearby as we eat dinner. The coyotes howl in the distance for a bit. It doesn’t feel quite as cold as I thought it would be tonight, though it’s still pretty chilly by the time I tuck myself into my quilt in the last moments of dim light.

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