AZT Day 26: Gritting Through

Today’s miles: 19.6

Total miles: 422

I wake very early and try not to disturb Moonglum as I’m packing. Everything sounds so loud. I wait until I’m a few tenths of a mile down the trail before making my morning bathroom stop and filtering the water I collected last night. The trail continues uphill and by 7:30am the air is already quite warm. It’s very slow going this morning, on rough rocky tread through lots of thorny overgrowth. It snags my sleeves and pants, scratches my hands. The trail winds around and around the mountainside, every curve more of the same: in toward the mountain into the sun, then turning out along the edge in brief shade, then repeat. Forever. I begin to despair a bit.

Morning views of Roosevelt Lake, the largest lake in Arizona and today’s destination.

Things are so overgrown that I can’t even find space to sit down for a break. I take the first available opportunity, even though it’s completely shadeless. Turning my back to the sun, I hunch over to eat and hydrate, feeling everything bake around me. Back on trail for more tough hiking. Current conditions: unstable rocky tread + steep drop-off on one side + thick spiky overgrowth that I swear is actively pushing me toward the drop-off. I’m exhausted and frustrated. When will this end??

Finally, finally, the trail opens up. But my mood’s not much improved, because it’s mid-day now and the landscape is super exposed. I trek on loose gravel and steep descents for a long time, prompting me to put on my audiobook as mental distraction from the misery. The trail steeply rollercoasters up and down for a while. I can see a hiker ahead of me in the distance — who could this be? I catch up on a downhill and say hello, introducing myself. He turns to me, face red and sweaty with exertion (as mine must also be), and says flatly, “This sucks.” He’s very unhappy, and I get it, I’ve been yelling at the overgrowth and feeling grouchy at the trail conditions all morning. But now, faced with another person who’s reflecting that back to me, I find I just don’t want to amplify it. Today is a very hard day and I’ve got all the negative energy I can withstand already inside of me — I think ratcheting it up with another person might tip me over the edge, and I still have quite a few hard miles to get through. I offer some encouraging words and hike on.

Up high in the blistering mid-day sun.

I cross a hot, exposed trailhead parking area, then slip and fall on loose gravel. I reach a set of expansive hills covered in dry grasses, the trail disappearing into them, and try to follow the occasional cairn but still get off track several times. The relief that comes as I crest a steep uphill is promptly disrupted by the unmistakable sound of a very loud rattlesnake. I freeze in place. Directly ahead of me, a giant green rattlesnake is fully reared up in the air, tail rattling fiercely. Slowly, I step back and make a wide circle around it, hearing the rattle fade as I continue on, full of adrenaline now. (Later, I will learn that this is known as a Mojave Green, the most venomous rattlesnake in the world.)

There’s a wildlife drinker off-trail near here, and I would rather not make the detour, but given the extreme heat and exposure, I doubt my current water stash will last the remaining miles. This is my only source today, so I trudge out to the concrete drinker, gently collect water while bees drink along the edges, and hunch down under the beating sun to filter. As I stand to leave, I feel physically depleted, as if the sun has just extracted all the life from my cells. Slowly, I return to the AZT and make my way down rocky trail covered in dead grass, certain I’m going to twist an ankle on these hidden rocks. I pass the same “this sucks” guy, who must have leapfrogged me while I was getting water. He’s sitting in the trail looking pretty overheated, and says that if I see his wife waiting at the trailhead I should tell her he’s still alive.

Walking across the tops of the mountains, meeting the saguaros for the first time.

Along this stretch, I encounter my first saguaro cacti, a huge field of them, towering above me. Wow. I hike uphill to a large radio tower and get a good view of Roosevelt Lake. It looks agonizingly close, but I know it’s still miles away. A red-tailed hawk glides by just overhead, lifting my spirits. There is a ridiculously steep descent here that takes forever — it probably would be faster and less stressful to just slide the whole way on my butt — and then some endless switchbacks down to the trailhead at the paved road. I hike these switchbacks on nothing but grit and determination, my brain on autopilot, just feeling utterly emptied out.

Radio tower at the top of a climb, right before a horrifically steep descent.
Melting in the relentless heat and longing for that cool lake.

At the road, I see a couple of hikers sitting in the little parking area and feebly raise a hand in greeting. They wave me over, and when I’m in earshot, one says “Hey, do you want a soda?” Oh my god. Yes I do. Caboose hands me a cold orange soda and I collapse onto the pavement next to his companion, Hotpants. Once I hear her name, I thank her for the helpful updates she’s made to the water report. This soda is one of the best things I’ve ever tasted, and it’s relieving to hear them affirm how incredible challenging this section has been. The overheated hiker’s wife is here, and I dutifully report that he is alive. They’re all very friendly, but I still have to get to the marina before the store closes. Reluctantly, I strap on my pack and walk the road another hot 2.2 miles.

At the marina’s convenience store, I immediately buy two large red Gatorades and retrieve my resupply box from the store. Roosevelt Lake is mostly for boaters (obviously) and the marina also hosts a big RV campground, but they’ve set out a little bare-bones area for hikers — really just a picnic table, a gravel area for tenting, and a small shed that’s mostly empty. The power outlet in the shed doesn’t work, to my dismay. The security guard, Patty, loves hikers and gives me a quick tour in her golf cart, then leaves me to sort my resupply at the picnic table. Soon Moonglum hitches in, and then Lost & Found and Peachfuzz also arrive in a car. The latter two got a ride with their friend Calves, a hiker who lives in Arizona and has been driving around to meet them at points along the trail. Pretty nice!

We have dinner outside at the marina restaurant. I order a burger, sweet potato fries, a side of grilled veggies, tater tots, and an extra large Sprite. My poor stomach can’t finish everything, and I slide the leftover fries into the middle of the table, where the others quickly demolish them. Calves gives me a liter of water from the stash in his trunk, then drives off with Lost & Found and Peachfuzz for a zero day. Moonglum and I set up our tents in the gravel parking lot, which feels very weird and kind of vulnerable. I lie there watching the headlights from the highway periodically wash through my tent walls, and worry. I’m supposed to get to my next town stop in four days, and my body is exhausted. The hiking in this section has been incredibly difficult, and there’s still a lot of hard climbing ahead. My anxiety finally gives way to sleep.

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