Arizona Trail Journal Part 1: Mexico to Vail

In this 112 mile stretch of trail, I begin my thru-hike of the AZT at the Mexico/U.S. border, traverse some surprisingly snowy mountains, drink from a bathtub, tackle a tricky detour, make friends with an owl, and have an unfortunate encounter with a bee. It’s a good thing fries and root beer make things better! Here’s my first dispatch from the wilds of Arizona.

Day 1: The Border to Dirt Road, 20 miles

Sunset from trail angels Joelle and Clyde’s home in Sierra Vista, AZ

My alarm went off at 5:30 am, and I lay listening for movement from Joelle and Clyde, the two lovely trail angels who hosted me and will drive me up to Montezuma Pass. It’s dead quiet.

I crawl out of my warm bed, the last of such a luxury for some time, and get ready with shaky hands. I have my usual pre-trail jitters and self doubt, and I repeat over and over that ‘I can do this’, but I’m not convincing myself. At 6:15, the house is still silent, and I wonder if I need to wake them up. We have three other hikers we’re picking up from a motel in Sierra Vista at 7:00, and Clyde had said he’d make breakfast before we set off.

Just as I’m putting the finishing touches on my pack job, Joelle bursts into the room. “Oh my God, Artemis! I’m so sorry, we’ve overslept!”

I assure her it’s okay, and she goes about getting ready. Clyde makes me up a bowl of homemade granola with fresh fruit and a cup of coffee, and entertains me with a story from his time as a backcountry ranger in Yosemite. “I’m sorry it’s not waffles,” he says, but I don’t mind. It’s all such wonderful hospitality, after all.

We pick up the others: Einstein, who’s attempting a yoyo, and Opossum and Heath Bar, a young couple from Colorado and Georgia, respectively. From Sierra Vista, it’s a journey up a winding gravel road to Coronado National Memorial, and the trailhead at Montezuma Pass. In the parking lot, a roadrunner suns itself and we pull our packs out of the back of the Jeep. Joelle snaps a photo of us, and then we’re off down the trail for our border tag.

It’s a four mile round trip home to the Southern Terminus on the Mexico/U.S. border, and back to Montezuma Pass again. The AZT winds through the hills, with sweeping vistas of the Huechaca Mountains, recently snow capped and a bit daunting. Miller Peak lies just to the north, and is infamous for its brutal climb. Just three days prior to my journey down to Arizona, the higher elevations saw a great deal of fresh snowfall. Miller Peak alone received around four feet of snow, and a hiker that Joelle and Clyde had dropped off before the storm required rescue via helicopter two days after he started.

I try and focus on the task in front of me, getting my wobbly legs to the border. I’ll cross the Miller Peak bridge when I get there, or climb that mountain when it’s in front of me. When I arrive at the terminus, there’s a few other hikers there sitting away the bench, one of them being Einstein. The monument sits behind a few thin strands of barbed wire on Mexican soil, twisted and ineffective from years of being crossed under by hikers wanting a trophy shot of their journeys’ start. I do the same, shoving my bag through first, then standing tall and hanging onto the monument for my own photographic memory.

I sit on the bench for a few moments, gathering thoughts and mustering bravery, choking down half of a gritty Clif Bar that I’m not even hungry for. I set off again, the sun bright and warm on my shoulders, heading north into the Huechaca Range.

Nearing Montezuma Pass again, I run into a couple of rangers who I stop to shoot the breeze with for a bit, talking trail and conditions. They wish me luck, and I descend to the pass, and then start my tedious climb up Miller.

Halfway up the switchbacks, I still haven’t encountered any snow pack, but I’ve successfully drained through two liters of water already. I check the water situation on Guthook’s, and it seems I have at least a few more miles before a dependable spring. I round a corner, thoroughly overheated from sun exposure now, and come across a slimy trough beside the trail. I take my chances with the brown water, and filter it into my clean bottle. It comes out mostly clear, so I add a Gatorade packet to disguise the slight tinge.

From there, I encounter steady patches of snow, slowly increasing with every labored elevation gain. I’m short of breath from the thinning air, and when I reach the spring, it’s a welcome sight. The spring empties into a bathtub, made into a makeshift trough. I find a small snow free patch of dirt to sit in beneath a tree, where I prop myself up and eat my lunch.

I run into a couple just past my lunch spot, cooking ramen and beginning to set up camp. They invite me stay, but it’s early yet, and I’d prefer not to camp in the snow. My goal is to at least make it over Miller Peak, and descend below the snow line before I quit for the day. I’m on my way again, traversing through knee deep snow, with aspen forest providing a thin veil of shade. I reach the side trail to the summit, and decide to skip a trip to the peak. I have enough on my plate as it is, and I begin the slow trudge down the mountain.

The trail is lost under the snow, and I follow my navigation and other footprints straight down the steep hillside, sliding and gripping to tree branches for stability. Agave and prickly pear cacti are carefully dodged in the process, as they are still half buried in snow.

Finally below the snow line, I follow a creek for a while into the evening. The terrain is gentle now, rambling into shady pine and oak forest. At another trough, a run into a hiker who’s already made camp and determined to convince me to stay as well. I make small talk as I filter more water, but I’m keen on getting in a couple more miles before dark, and press forward.

Darkness creeps under the forest canopy sooner than I expected, and I’m half regretting not making camp back at the trough. A wildlife camera flashes as I pass, startling me at first. I probably look as stunned as a deer or javelina, or whatever they typically catch on film. I imagine David Attenborough, narrating the hikertrash vignette in the next Planet Earth.

“Here we see the elusive female thru-hiker, making her annual Spring migration to the north. It doesn’t appear that breeding motivates this captivating journey, as she regularly shows disinterest in the male species’ flamboyant displays to prove strength. Instead, she either ignores this behavior, or signals her distaste with eye-rolling. Her ability to consume nearly half her body weight daily in food intake is impressive, and although it isn’t scientifically proven, may be the key to unlocking the mystery behind this unorthodox journey.”

Just as I’ve flipped my headlamp on, I come to a dirt road, flooded out by the melting snow and flowing like a river. There’s a flat turn out just along the trail, and I make camp there. I have my dinner beside my little tarp shelter, batting away the moths attracted to the dim light of my lamp and listening to a bit of music before crawling under my quilt. It’s my first night tarp camping, and I’m alone, but I’m too tired to be kept up with worry.

Day 2: Dirt Road to Mesquite Camp, 23 miles

When I wake up, it’s still dark and very still. I start tearing down my shelter, and at the first sign of dawn, the coyotes start to howl to one another. For some reason, my hands are sore and tender to the touch. Once it’s light enough, I discover the tops are a deep color of red from sunburn. I had walked all day yesterday without protection on my arms and hands from the sun, and now I’m paying the price. I slip my sun sleeves on, and start hiking.

I begin the day with a mellow climb, passing through a stock gate and stepping over dried up cow chips. The day is bright with sunshine, and the blue sky stretches out for minutes over the rolling, grass covered hills. At a creek crossing, I sit on the bank to filter some water and make a cup of cold brew.

Hard lesson learned: if you have sun sleeves, wear them.

I spend the morning dipping in and out of gullies, under the hot sun and sweating beneath the layers I’m wearing to protect myself from exposure. Midday, I come upon a wash, and sit under an oak tree for some shade. I take the opportunity to dry the condensation off of my gear, laying it out in the sunshine. A wasp takes interest in my things, and hangs around a little too long for my comfort. I enjoy the coolness of the shade, and drink down a liter of the cold water trickling through the wash.

Early in the evening, my muscles and feet begin to ache, and I’m feeling uncomfortable. I sit beside a stock pond for a bit, trying to take the weight off my pack off my feet. It smells like cow shit, and a group of cattle sit watching me from a cluster of mesquite trees. The trail continues on a rocky, dirt road, over a low lying pass and back into the hills. There’s cattle everywhere, scurrying out of my way at the very last minute. This makes me uneasy, as they’re such massive and unpredictable things.

I walk through a flooded canyon, wading in ice cold water and then passing an old stone structure. I reach a cattle station near sundown, getting water from a trough and then pushing on into the mesquite trees to find a suitable place to camp. I pitch my tarp in the dark again, sitting in the dirt for my dinner and massaging my aching feet. As I lay in my bivy, I hear some cows mooing in the distance, and I wonder if I’ll wake up surrounded by the herd in the morning.

Day 3: Mesquite Camp to Walker Basin Trailhead, 21 miles

I set my alarm for 4 am, rising in the dark and setting off before sunrise so I can get into the town of Patagonia early on and get some breakfast. The first couple of hours I hike in the dark, with my headlamp illuminating the way. I walk up several washes, following cairns and occasionally checking my navigation to make sure I’m still on track.

I watch the sun come up from the trail, walking through the chilly morning air as quickly as I can move. I’m fantasizing of pancakes, after all. I don’t see anymore cows, just glorious pink sky and red rock canyon dotted with yucca.

I reach a trailhead parking lot along a paved road, where the route takes to road walking the last two miles into town. As I enter the edges of Patagonia, the neighborhood seems to be just coming to life, and the smell of coffee floats on the air. A border control officer goes whizzing past, stone faced as I give a little wave.

In town, it’s still quiet. The Wild Horse restaurant at the inn seems inviting, so I march over with a hole to fill in my gut. The waitress looks me up and down with slight shock as she seats me, and I’m a bit surprised by this. Is she not accustomed to hikers coming through here? Does she think I’m a vagrant? I’ve been on the trail less than three days, I can’t possibly be that disgusting just yet. I go about charging my electronics, and order a short stack and coffee. Once my meal arrives, I have to hold back from completely inhaling the pancakes. I drink a few more cups of coffee, and the waitress barks at me to pay up front when I’m ready. I respond that I’d like a warm up on my cup, please and thank you.

After breakfast, I buy a few things at the local shop to get me through the next few days on trail, and then head out of town. I have some more roadwalking to do, first following paved highway and then walking along dirt road into the Santa Rita Range. This goes on for several, exposed miles on dusty track, with more border control vehicles speeding along.

After navigating a series of turns on the service roads, I come to a metal gate where an official AZT reroute has begun. The main trail is closed due to a mining reclaim (gross), and I’ve been instructed by the Arizona Trail Association to ‘just follow the orange flagging.’ According to the comments on Guthook’s, it’s not as straightforward as they make it seem. I have nowhere else to go but forward, so I move on, passing through the gate and down another rough road.

The orange flagging takes me through a maze of roads at first, eventually climbing up to a ridge where the wind blasts me head on. The flagging seems fairly consistent, leading me down a steeply graded path to another road. They then disappear.

The road ends suddenly in a dry gulch, where the flagging picks up again, leading me deep into a canyon. I follow a flowing creek for some time, jumping from one narrow bank to the next, flanked on both sides by high canyon walls. The route narrows at times, and I wade through the creek.

The trail leaves the canyon, and follows freshly cut trail in the woods before spitting me out on a cactus filled hilltop. I look all around me, but don’t see any flags. I take the high ground, eventually spotting one tied top a scrawny twig. Just beyond the flag, lies the main trail. I work my way down, carefully avoiding all the cactus and prickly things that are determined to catch my skin.

Just part of the new route on the AZT

I’m finally back on the actual AZT, and I’m overheated and exhausted. I find some shade after crossing a creek, and have a rest for a while. A wind picks up, cooling things off significantly, and I keep going.

The trail, in reality, is just another road, steadily gaining elevation into the Santa Rita’s as it passes more free range cattle, rushing creeks, and rickety gates. The sky darkens with storm clouds, and I grow increasingly nervous that it might actually snow again.

I roll into the abandoned Walker trailhead, completely knackered and ready to make camp. I’m surprised to find four other hikers there, and a friendly man named Chris helps me clear some branches to make room for my shelter. After the somewhat tedious process of getting my camp ready, I toss my shoes aside, and chow down on some peanut butter tortilla wraps, corn chips and chocolate for dinner. It feels so good to lay down after dinner, and sleep comes easily.

Day 4: Walker Basin Trailhead to Cow Pie Camp, 30 miles

The air is fragrant with juniper in the morning, and I’m the first to break camp and leave in the morning. I cross the creek at Walker Basin trailhead, and hike the two miles up to catch the sunrise from a ridge.

On the north facing slope, I encounter icy patches of snow and several blow downs across the trail, all the way down the switchbacks to Bear Spring. There, I stop to make coffee and eat a bowl of cereal. Down the trail, the blow downs continue until I reach the bottom.

The trail levels out, following the rim of a canyon on what I assume is an old mining road. The sun is out in full force now, and I cover up once again, mentally preparing myself to be walking in a swampy sauna suit. I pass several old mines, flooded out and long forgotten about, and ford a surprising amount of swollen creeks.

At a trailhead, I begin to share the trail with a good number of mountain bikes and day hikers, and suddenly the area is lacking in water. Thankfully, when I arrive at Kentucky Camp (a historical gold mining site), the groundskeeper has left a healthy cache out on the front porch of the guest cabin. I enjoy the covered porch, resting my tired legs and drinking water.

From the camp, the trail takes to following more dirt road back into the hills, then turning back into a single track on a long, winding descent through parched desert. Prickly pear and fishhook barrel cactus abound, and I’m careful not to flail too much from my narrow corridor.

The guest cabin at Kentucky Camp

By evening, I’ve gathered a few liters of water from a seasonal stream, and start looking for a place to crash for the night. It’s a grim outlook, however, as there’s cacti everywhere, and the one saddle I climbed over was overloaded with fresh cow pies. As night takes over, I finally find a cramped space beneath a scratchy juniper. There’s cow shit here, too, but it’s dry and I kick it out of the way. I quickly set up, and a gorgeous horned owl pays me a visit, perching on a branch above me. It’s such a lovely creature, and I feel at ease with it there.

After another peanut butter wrap dinner, I snuggle down into my quilt and try to drift off. Suddenly, there’s a strange animal sound coming from the next hilltop over, somewhere in between a screech or yowling sound. Mountain lion? I can’t be sure, but it doesn’t sound like the typical ‘woman screaming bloody murder’ cry of a big cat. I shine my light in the direction of the ruckus, and it stops immediately. Instead, my owl friend takes over hooting, and my stress fades away.

Day 5: Cow Pie Camp to Gabe Zimmerman Trailhead/Vail, 18 miles

I had set my alarm to go off at 4 a.m., and when it did I ignored it for another thirty minutes or so before getting moving. It was pitch black, and dead quiet except for the occasional hooting from my owl friend. After everything was packed and first light was creeping over the horizon, the coyotes start their regular howling. I set off into the dim early morning.

I watch the sun come up in blazing red glory over the mountains to the east. The morning is cool and bright, meandering over rolling hills covered in thousands of clusters of prickly pear. I stop at a grimy cow pond to fill up on water, leaning against an oak tree as I filter. The honey bees are out in full force, carpeting the soggy ground and desperately trying to get a drink. I shoulder my pack, which apparently has disturbed a cranky bee, and he swiftly stings my knee before I can swat at him. I flee in a panic, losing my lip balm in the process. My poor leg is throbbing, and when I feel I’m at a safe enough distance, I pop a Benadryl and limp forward.

The day heats up quite a bit before noon, and although I’m in pain and extremely drowsy from the Benadryl, I’m moving along nicely. The terrain isn’t too challenging, but I’m in misery. My knee is so swollen, it feels like my leg meat is going to split open when I bend it. I feel like I could sleep for days; I want to sleep for days.

Without my lip balm, my lips become chapped and burned within a couple of hours. I’m surprised to arrive at a trailhead at Sahaurita Road so soon, but there’s only a lone car parked in the lot and its unoccupied. I push on, hoping to have better luck at the next one.

Despite my hands being covered by my sun sleeves, the tops are blistering from the afternoon heat. I take a short breather under the I-10 freeway overpass, and slather sunscreen across my face, neck and the backs of my legs. I can feel the heat under my skin, radiating outwards, and tears damming behind my eyes.

At the Gabe Zimmerman trailhead, there’s a couple of guys sporting cowboy hats and shooting the shit to one another through the rolled down windows of their work trucks. A dog sits shotgun in one ride, eyeing me cautiously. I crumple into a small patch of shade near the Port-o-Potty, feeling defeated and, somewhat oddly, too intimidated to ask one of them for a ride into town. I stare down at my half full water bottle, lost in an antihistamine fueled daze.

“You a hiker?” One of them hollers from the truck. I nod, trying to smile.

“Need a ride into town? Where you going?”

“Vail,” it comes out barely louder than a whisper, and he holds his hand up to his ear. I shout it across the lot, and he waves me over. I hop in the truck, and he introduces himself as Jared, tipped hat and all.

On the ride into town, he tells me about his backpacking trip to Havasupai with his kids. I’m so exhausted, and although I’m interested in his hike, I fear I’m too listless to be convincingly interested. He seems to sense it though, and my swollen, red knee is a giveaway to my emotional state. He points to it, “you gonna ice that knee?”

“I’m hoping so.” But I’m not sure that I can. There’s no motels in Vail, only in neighboring Tucson, and I’m not sure I want to go that far out of the way.

He drops me off at the post office in the center of town, and I grab my resupply box. I head across the parking lot and end up at the Dairy Queen, devouring a box of fries and a bucket of root beer. From there, I call home, and I can’t control the water works. Through my sobbing, Pedro tells me to go rest up for the night in Tucson. I throw every excuse at him not too, including ‘but I’ve only hiked 18 miles today’ and ‘it’s only been five days since I started’, realizing how stupid that all really sounds.

I pull up my Guthook app, scouring some posts for a trail angel I thought I’d seen in the comments for Vail. Sure enough, a man called Eli has left his number. I send a text, and he responds almost immediately, saying he’ll drive me into Tucson. I feel the weight of the world lifting off my tender, slightly sunburned shoulders.

Eli picks me up in front of the post office, and I’m feeling more chatty now. He offers to take me back to the trail in the morning, and I’m elated. I get a room at the cheap Travel Inn along the freeway, and it’s about as rough around the edges as a $50 room can be. However, there’s still a shower with hot water, and most importantly, an ice machine.

After rinsing the layer of grime off, I run over to the nearby Chevron to replace my lip balm, and grab another order of fries and root beer from the A&W for my dinner.

Back in the room, I hand wash my clothes, ice my knee and dose up on round two of Benadryl and ibuprofen. I call home again, talking poor Pedro’s ear off about the trail, and how silly I felt for not wanting to take a break. Why do I beat myself up over these things? If you’re tired and hurting, it’s okay to rest!

With some awful sitcom on the TV in the background, I fade in and out.

-Artemis

P.S. I’m still raising funds for suicide prevention and mental health programs with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. If you enjoy reading my content, please consider donating to my campaign and help save lives. You can that here.

All money raised goes directly to AFSP National.

Thanks, and happy trails!

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