AZT Day 20: Dropping Off

Today’s miles: 20.5

Total miles: 309.6

It’s another wickedly cold morning. Cool Beans is up and out a little before me, because I have to give myself a pep talk in order to emerge from my down cocoon. I pack as fast as I can, eager to get moving to warm up, and am on trail by 6:30am. Gotta knock out today’s miles so I can maximize my rest in town tonight.

General Springs Cabin, on the Cabin Loop Trail and close to our campsite. Built somewhere between 1914-1918, it was used as a fire guard station as part of the US Forest Service work for several decades.

Shortly after passing the mouse-infested cabin, the trail crosses a road and then takes a very steep, very rocky downhill. I navigate with care, feeling a bit unsteady. About a fourth of the way down, I realize with alarm that I am not wearing my glasses. Did I not put them on this morning?! With a sinking feeling, I surmise that I never even took them out of the little mesh pocket in my tent before rolling it up. I take off my pack, extract my tent, and unroll it with trepidation. “Please, please, please,” I whisper, almost certain that my glasses are crushed. But to my huge relief, they’re fully intact. Clear eyesight restored, I fare a little better as the steep descent continues, and vow not to rush my morning pack-up quite so much in the future.

Sunrise colors as I start a steep rocky descent.

The downhill goes on and on, affirming that we were correct to camp where we did, as there’s no flat ground to be seen. The wind that I heard crashing through the treetops all night reappears near the bottom of this descent, and shows no signs of letting up. The AZT joins the Highline Trail here, bringing me into a wholly different landscape than the pine forests I’ve traveled through for many days. The trail is finally dropping off of the Mogollon Rim here, taking us down to lower elevations and warmer temps at last. I try to focus on the new scenery as the trail jots up and down, up and down. The wind has endless capacity, big gusts that force me to hold onto my hat with one hand. Several times I have to fight against it to stay upright.

Incredible new landscape!

My toe hurts and when I finally find a place to sit with a smidge of shelter from the wind, I take off my shoe to inspect it. A big blister has already burst, ugh. I guess I should be grateful that this is the first blister I’ve had in many weeks of hiking. Balancing on the edge of a rock, I manage a quick patch-up, but I’m in a grumpy mood now. The wind whips around me, loud and relentless. Intrusive. I feel like I might scream, I’m so desperate for even a brief reprieve. But there’s nothing to do for it except hike.

I pass many little campsites that would be amazing spots in calmer weather, and then reach a gorgeous open space with sweeping views unlike anything I’ve seen on this trail before. I stop to take a 360-degree video and the wind nearly blows me right over. On the steady downhill that follows, I finally start to leave the gusts behind. I hear footsteps behind me and discover that Cool Beans is back there — I must have unknowingly leapfrogged her while she was stopped off-trail for a snack.

I think this is a bear print?

We hike down to a trailhead, cross the dirt road, and find beautiful flowing water on the other side, running cold and clear in the shade of many trees. What a mood-changer! We stop here for lunch and I fill up my bottles for the remaining 8.5 miles to town. The first five miles of this are rolling, but in a general upward direction, and it’s hot. I hike behind Cool Beans at a good clip for a while, but the heat wears me down. I tell her to go on, and then sit in some shade to drink electrolytes and eat a Snickers bar. After only 15 minutes I feel totally revitalized, and practically run the gradual downhill three miles to the Pine trailhead. There’s a mile-ish roadwalk into town from here, and as soon as I turn onto the pavement I can see Cool Beans up ahead. But I can’t quite catch her, and when I arrive at the BBQ place she’s just gotten a table. We order a ridiculous amount of food. Nothing tastes as good as fresh town food after multiple days of big miles.

Hiking behind Cool Beans on the rolling trail toward Pine.
Squinting into the sun and wind.

It’s already evening now, and we reluctantly walk our distended bellies to the grocery store, which is much smaller than I’d hoped. It’s challenging to pull together a six-day resupply, but I manage. Outside, we find Lost & Found sitting at a patio table polishing off a pint of ice cream. He did manage to complete his 40-mile day yesterday, but reports he does not ever want to do another one. A whole herd of elk are just grazing in a field right here in the middle of town. We have what feels like an interminably long walk in the dark to the cabin I booked, and once there we can’t figure out the code to the door and I have to text the owner to ask, feeling desperate now to be done with this long day. But then, we’re inside, and I embrace the bliss of town: putting down my pack and groceries; taking a hot shower; using a washing machine; and sitting at the kitchen table with Cool Beans, each of us tucked under blankets and eating pints of ice cream as we chat. We set up space heaters in the bedrooms and I fall asleep in an instant.

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