AZT Day 30: Wilting by the Gila River

Today’s miles: 18.7

Total miles: 491.3

Periodically through the night I hear a small raspy gnawing sound just behind my tent. I’m convinced some desert rodent is chewing on my guylines or some other facet of my tent hardware, and I keep noisily turning over to try to frighten it away. In the morning, I realize the more likely explanation is that it was chewing on one of the many cactus plants around me, probably for water.

It never really got cold in the night, which is a bad sign for today. I’m already warm as I begin climbing the rolling-but-trending-uphill miles to my next water source. And the sun hasn’t even hit the side of the mountain I’m on yet! It’s a very beautiful morning though.

Early morning views, warm even before the sun has reached me.

Just as I’m ready for a break, I see the turnoff for today’s exciting water source. It’s an enormous rainwater catchment that the AZT Association designed and installed here a few years ago. This is one of the driest sections of the trail, so the rainwater collector provides much-needed water to hikers as well as other animals (the overflow goes into an open trough). As a bonus, it gives off some amazing shade. I collapse onto my Tyvek and drink all of my remaining water, then set about filtering several liters from the catchment. I eat quite a lot, grateful for the shade’s boost to my appetite, and drink nearly two liters in the hour or so that I’m here.

Giant rainwater collector. What a gift.
Spectacular views near the rainwater catchment.

Somewhat reluctantly, I return to the blazing hot trail for more ups and downs as I wind around the mountainsides. I run into a northbound hiker named Penguin, who just left Kearny and has nothing but fantastic things to say about it. Man, I’m so ready for town. Penguin also shows me a bottle of water he got from the Gila River, my next source in nine miles — it’s cloudy with silt. Not really looking forward to running that through my poor filter.

Dramatic red ground cover and saguaros as I start the descent.

I finally finish the day’s major climbing and begin a long, long descent. It’s after 11am now and the heat is inescapable. It reflects up from the rocky trail and beats down from above. There is precious little shade. Finally as the trail dips into a wash, I see a patch of shade in the sand and stop for a sit-down break. There are cowpies everywhere but I can’t even care. I drink water, eat a snack, and say hi to Peach Fuzz as he passes me. He’s intent on getting into Kearny by tonight, but that’s too many miles for me.

Huge rock formations along the descent.

I’m refreshed now, but it doesn’t last long back in the sun. Around and around the mountains forever, looping in and out of little canyons and washes, slowly descending to the Gila. When at last I hit the first river access point, I’m feeling desperate for shade. Apparently this is the easiest place to get to the river, as much of it is blocked off by barbed wire fencing. (I assume this has to do with the cattle everywhere, but I’m not sure.) I follow a dirt road off-trail until the river appears, looking very muddy indeed. There’s plenty of shade, but it’s hard to reach the river itself because the banks are lined with a foot of thick mud. The smell of cowpies is very strong.

Movement on the opposite bank catches my eye: a javelina! Wait, multiple javelina! A squadron! (I recently learned this is the actual term for a group of javelina.) They’re anxious about my presence even though I’m on the other side of the river, and all trot away. As they do, I glimpse one tiny baby javelina. So cool.

The river water doesn’t look very appetizing, but it’s relatively cold, and that’s enough for me to try. All the water currently in my bottles is disgustingly hot from the sun. I pre-filter using my bandana, hoping to strain out some of the silt, then run the water through my actual filter. It tastes…okay. I make a cup of electrolytes and eat a small snack. My appetite is waning. It’s just too hot.

Gila River. Near here is the official lowest point of elevation on the AZT.

Onward. Even after my sit-down break in the shade, the heat saps my energy immediately. Though the trail is relatively flat now, every little uphill feels exhausting. For no apparent reason, the trail winds around endlessly through here, making me irritable. I drag myself along. I tell myself that it’s only going to get cooler now, the sun is going down, the plants are giving off more shade. It’s early enough that I can do more miles than expected, giving me a shorter day into town tomorrow. I think about all the cold drinks I’m going to buy, the ice cream I’m going to eat. Even this is ultimately not enough to keep me going, and I start to stagger a bit in the relentless heat. A mile away from my goal, I see a shaded flat spot, throw down my Tyvek, and just lie flat on my back for several minutes. Eventually I eat some salty chips and drink more water. I consider camping here, but it’s literally right next to the trail and I don’t want to deal with a cow parade past my tent all night.

I pull on my pack again and keep walking another half mile until I find a nice flat spot set back from the trail. It’s tiring to collect big rocks to pitch my tent. I definitely didn’t eat enough today. I carefully set aside water for tomorrow — about ten miles to the next source, which is also the spot where I’ll hitch into town — and lie down. It’s so warm I sleep in just my underwear, and lightly drape my quilt over my legs. There are no words to express the depth of my desire for town food, cold drinks, a shower, and laundry. I plan to hike fast in the morning.

Fortunately, not too exhausted to recognize that I have a perfectly lovely campsite tonight.

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