Today’s miles: 16.3
Total miles: 438.3
It’s not that fun to sleep next to the highway in a gravel parking lot with big floodlights on. I’m up at 6am, feeling sluggish mentally and physically. As soon as the marina store opens, I buy a third large Gatorade and drink it all at once before finally dragging myself toward the trail. The trail access point is through a tiny neighborhood, where everyone seems still asleep. I find it, but there’s a gate blocking the way, and a big padlock on it. Hmm. I poke around for a while before walking back through the cluster of houses. Two neighbors are out in their pajamas walking their dogs, and one tries to point me toward the gate. “It’s locked,” I say, “with a big padlock.” No, he informs me, I can get around it if I look closely in the brush on the side. I’m skeptical, but he says they go through all the time to hike up there. I return to the gate and find it’s just as he described.
I walk up a steep rutted road. This whole section of the AZT seems to be either rutted dirt roads or trails full of rocks. The road goes up and down for a bit before becoming a very steep and rocky ascent. I’m working hard. I reach a water tank and investigate it briefly before continuing on, but I miss a trail sign and am partway up an extremely steep climb before realizing I’m off-trail. What a waste of time and energy.
The real trail takes me into more overgrowth, crossing many different washes and dry creek beds. At every single crossing point, I lose the trail. Everything is sandy with lots of thick brush. Nothing looks like trail. Everything looks like trail. I spend a ridiculous amount of time searching and backtracking through here, finally stopping for a snack break at Cottonwood Creek, the last decent water for 11 miles. Another hiker appears, and I wave hello. He peers at me. “Are you Apple Juice?” When I say yes, confused about how he knows, he explains, “I saw your name in the water reports and I wondered if it was the same Apple Juice. I’m Wingnut — we met at the end of the PNT!” Oh yeah…he and his friend were trying to hitch out as Colleen and I walked to the cafe for end-of-trail sandwiches. What a small little hiking world it is sometimes. Before he hikes on, Wingnut says he owes me, because he would’ve gotten way more off-trail through these washes if he hadn’t had my footprints to follow. Given the amount of backtracking I’ve done, I’m not sure my footprints are all that helpful, but I keep this thought to myself.
I filter three liters and head out again, gratefully finding the trail a bit easier to follow now. I decide to take a road alternate to get a short break from the overgrowth, and am able to make up a little time. But soon enough the road rejoins the AZT, and then becomes a wildly steep, rutted, rocky climb. It’s maybe the steepest yet, and looks very intimidating from down here. I take things slow and steady, occasionally stopping to look out at the view behind me, noting some hunters on ATVs. My triumph when I reach the top — and pass the sign marking the boundary of Superstition Wilderness — is tempered by the steep downhill on loose rock that follows, but eventually I find myself in a peaceful forested area with a campsite for my lunch break. I note that it’s now 2:30pm and I still have 6.5 miles to go today. Not optimal.
I head up to a short ridge walk with some gentler ups and downs, then pick my way down a steep descent on loose rocks hidden in the dry grass. Two section hikers going northbound pass by and encourage me to look for the apple orchard tomorrow when I reach the old Reavis Ranch area. I hurry on downhill, then hit the bottom and immediately go straight back up. Argh. This PUD (pointless up-and-down) is about 900 feet of elevation each way. It’s steep, I’m tired, and daylight is beginning to fade. I feel stressed, and realize that I’m not able to enjoy the hiking as I should, because I’m worried about whether I can make it to my next town stop on time. I have a room reserved at the only hotel in Kearny, where I will take a much-needed zero day. But this means there’s a lot of pressure to make my miles each day, no matter how tough the terrain. At the top of this climb, I sit on a rock to eat calories and talk out loud to myself, a motivational speech for the remaining miles.
Dusk is imminent. The trail descends, ascends, then rolls along, and I hike as fast as I can manage. I’m still half a mile from my campsite when I have to click on my headlamp. Near the camping area I lose the trail completely, but unlike this morning in the washes, now I’m in the dark. I turn my headlamp to the brightest setting and swing my head around, trying to locate the trail. There’s a little canyon here, and the rocks and sand make it impossible to know which way is correct. There is no clear space to put a tent. I feel a bit panicky and have to give myself a stern lecture to calm down and think clearly. Retracing my steps, I search carefully, never venturing too far beyond what I know to be trail. At last, I shine my light in the right space between the rocks, and see a path into a small clearing, just big enough for a couple of tents. Relief washes over me.
I wearily set up camp in the dark, and use my scrap of cell service to message Cyn, asking them to call the Kearny hotel and postpone my reservation by one day. Snug in my quilt, I silently vow that this is my last attempt at night hiking on the AZT. Maybe I’d try again on other, more well-traveled trails. Or maybe on trails that don’t cross washes and canyons so often. It just feels too dangerous here. Even now, though I know I am in a campsite, I have no idea where the actual trail is, or the water source that’s supposed to be nearby. I trust I’ll figure it out in the morning light.