AZT Day 22: Into the Mountains

Today’s miles: 20.5

Total miles: 341

Surprisingly, I sleep pretty well under that juniper tree. In the night I wake to the sound of gusting wind through the mountains, but the tree’s sheltering branches and my lower elevation result in only a gentle breeze through my tent. Still, I feel reluctant to get out of bed in the morning, and get on trail later than I’d like, around 6:45.

There’s more of the rocky, overgrown downhill for a few miles this morning, and by now it feels tedious. This seems to be a reroute that was just put in this spring or summer, so it’s not as well-traveled as other segments of the trail. As with yesterday afternoon, I spend a lot of time trying to determine the most likely direction for a trail to take, cross-referencing with my map and GPS as needed. Eventually this portion does end, and I’m rewarded with some nice tread on the way to White Rock Spring. This spring piped into a metal trough is just a few yards off trail. There’s a big mass of bright green algae on the bottom, but the water above it is clear, and tastes great after filtering. I filter two liters and eat my new second breakfast of granola with chocolate Carnation instant breakfast mix. I’m really enjoying it so far.

Clear trail at last.
Great water at White Rock Spring.

Back on trail, there’s a long stretch of flat tread that is just completely shot through with huge holes. At times they look like the result of horses or elk walking through when it was muddy, but other times it just looks like the ground caved in on its own. I try to walk quickly but find I have to constantly avoid the holes, dodge the cow/elk/horse poo, and watch for snakes in the tall grass lining the trail.

Late morning views.

This section concludes by sending me down an extremely steep descent on loose rock and gravel. I slide on my heels several times but manage not to actually fall. At the bottom, a miracle: the East Verde River, flowing clear and wide. What a gift. I filter two liters here too, and take an early lunch on the riverbank. It’s nearly noon when I clip on my pack again, and the rest of my day will be steep climbing. In mid-day heat.

East Verde River, what a rare and beautiful sight out here.

It’s about as tough as I’d imagined. I listen to an audiobook (An American Marriage by Tayari Jones) and that helps for a while. The climb is very difficult and almost entirely exposed to direct sun. Drenched in sweat, I finish the longest and steepest portion just before 2pm, and curl my body into a tiny patch of shade while I drink electrolytes and eat a snack. I still have seven miles to my planned campsite, many of them uphill. Oh well. Gotta hike.

Weathered junction sign at the top of today’s longest climb. I was overheated, sweaty, and exhausted when I took this picture.

At least these shorter climbs are interspersed with downhill sections to give my leg muscles some variety. Both directions are often steep and often on scree. Going down one hill, I slide before I even know what’s happened, and find myself on my butt in the trail. I’m unharmed, and there’s no one to witness that embarrassing moment, so I just stand up and hike on. I see a smallish snake (not a rattler) lying across the trail, and gently flick some dirt at it with my trekking poles until it moves off the trail and into the brush. By the end of the last big uphill push, I’m really tired and consider camping early. There are a few flat spots that could suffice. But I also want to keep going these last three miles, because there’s a water source that I need, but also because I just really want to make my planned mileage today.

Late afternoon views.

I hike down to where the trail notes say there are “seeps and pools” near the trail. There are skimmer bugs on the surface of the pools, but the water is clear, and I just put it into my pack untreated — I’ll filter in the morning. Of course five minutes later I pass a pool where water is actually gently flowing, making it a more appealing source, but I’m too worried about time to stop again. It’s already past 5pm, and the sun will start to set soon. Setting up camp in the dark is not my favorite.

I climb uphill for the final mile, groaning audibly when it’s steep, until I suddenly lose the trail. Huh? I’m only a few tenths of a mile from the place I want to camp, but all around me are blowdowns and impenetrable brush. I look at my GPS and try to bushwhack toward the trail several times. Each time, the GPS tells me I’ve crossed over the trail. But where?! Absolutely nothing looks like trail here. Finally I just bushwhack in the direction of the junction that’s just ahead, pushing through thick bushes and swearing, until I emerge onto perfectly clear trail. What on earth.

I hike a few more tenths, finally finding a flat spot right next to the trail for my tent. There’s been an incredible sunset while I had my little bushwhacking drama, and now I pitch the tent in rapidly dwindling light. I’m glad the moon is nearly full, supplementing my headlamp. I’m fully exhausted when I finally crawl into my quilt. I guess this is my introduction to the Mazatzals.

Sunset colors while I search for the trail.

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