AZT Day 19: Catching Up

Today’s miles: 26.6

Total miles: 289.1

The night is incredibly cold. The coldest I’ve been on trail all year. Despite wearing long underwear, a fleece shirt and gloves, a down hat and booties, a wool buff over my face, and a puffy jacket draped over my torso — all inside of a down quilt rated for 15*F — I wake in the early morning hours with feet so cold they ache. For the next few hours I sleep restlessly, kicking my feet back and forth in an attempt to generate extra heat. Just before dawn, through my tent walls I see the red light of a headlamp as Cool Beans starts her day. She’s buckling her pack on as I emerge from my frost-covered tent, and we briefly commiserate about the cold. She seems convinced that I’m a faster hiker than her (I’m not sure it’s true), so even though she’s out of camp before me, we expect to reconnect later today when I catch up.

It takes me an hour to thaw out once I start hiking. Eventually I’m warm enough to take off my puffy jacket, but all of my water bottles are still filled with icy slush. Man, I’m really looking forward to dropping off the Mogollon Rim tomorrow — we’ve been at 7,000+ feet elevation for days, and in late autumn it’s really cold up here.

Named water source. It did not appeal.

All day I try to catch Cool Beans. I keep thinking I’ll see her at the occasional trailheads and road crossings, maybe stopped for a snack break, but instead I just find her name in a couple of trail registers, always a bit ahead of me. By 11am I’ve hiked 12 miles and am ready for a lunch stop. Alongside a dusty dirt road, there’s a bear box with a giant public water cache, and I spread out my Tyvek in the patchy shade nearby. As I’m finishing up, another hiker arrives. His name’s Lost & Found, and he tells me he’s attempting a 40-mile day. Ooof. He seems nice, but given his planned mileage, I don’t expect to see him again!

Unnamed water source. Also not appealing, but standard fare on the AZT.
Wide open landscape midday.

After lunch the trail winds me through another car campground that’s closed for the season, and then some rolling terrain. On a long downhill section I lose the trail, wandering around a ravine and backtracking several times, peering at my GPS and scanning the landscape for clues until I finally find clear trail again. The steep descent continues, ending at the miracle that is flowing water. A wide shallow stream just gently moving in the breeze. I sit in the sandy gravel and filter a few liters before tackling the steep uphill that takes me right back up.

East Clear Creek — it truly feels incredible to find flowing water out here.

Just as I crest the top of the climb, I spot Cool Beans in the distance ahead. I pick up my pace and as I get close — though still not quite in earshot — she turns and sees me, raising both her arms in greeting. I really enjoy solo hiking, but it does feel good to have a pal out here who is glad to see you. She’d expected me to catch her sooner, and wonders if my Achilles’ tendon is still bothering me. But it’s not as bad today, luckily.

We walk and chat until I realize we’ve missed a turn. I check the map and discover that there’s a dirt road we can take to connect back to the AZT in a couple miles, saving us the backtrack. At that junction, we find perfect sitting rocks and stop for one last snack break. We’ve done 22ish miles already today, but agree to hike another 4.5, which should put us at a spot with good camping and knock a little more off of our mileage into town tomorrow.

I start these last miles feeling like a champ. On a set of long switchbacks downhill, I yell out, “You know what this trail needs? More rocks.” Haha. But in a way, the rough trail is a welcome distraction for my tired body and brain. We wind along the edge of a lazy creek, then through some forested areas with several little campsites tucked away. I begin to feel very tired and hike on auto-pilot for the last couple miles.

It’s dusk when we finally reach our destination, a spacious campsite under trees. There’s an old cabin nearby (the trail notes warn that it’s overrun with mice), and I realize I’m now connected up to the Cabin Loop Trail, the portion of it that Cyn and I didn’t hike together last week. Cool Beans and I perch on some logs and eat dinner before retreating to the warmth of our quilts. I try to read for a bit (The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones), but I’m exhausted after these back-to-back 26+ mile days. Still 20 miles tomorrow to make it to town, whew.


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