AZT Journal part 6: Thru the Grand Canyon & into Utah

It’s time to finish this thing up! The 800 mile journey on the Arizona Trail has to come to an end at some point, and boy does it have a grand finale in store for me! Into the Grand Canyon, and beyond!

ANDERSON TANK TO TUSAYAN, 30 MILES

I wake up to the sounds of Catbait breaking camp; vigorously shaking the ice from his tent and shoving his belongings into his pack.  It’s early, and the first light of day is just beginning to peek through the pine trees.  Longbeard is in his tent snacking away from the comfort of his sleeping bag, the sounds of various food wrappers rustling against the still of the morning.  I turn on my headlamp, and the ice crystals that have formed inside my tarp shelter reveal a glimmering layer on the interior walls.  My water bottles are frozen, as is my Sawyer Squeeze.  There will be no coffee or oatmeal this morning. 

I do a little shuffle as I’m packing up, desperately trying warm up and get the blood flowing to my muscles.  I’m about twenty minutes behind Catbait, and as I’m leaving, Longbeard is just poking his head out of his tent.  He’ll have to catch up; it’s far too chilly to be waiting around.

It’s a bright day, but with sub-freezing temperatures that magnify the aches in my joints.  No matter how fast I hike, I just can’t seem to warm up.  I’m bundled up in every layer I have, with my wool buff pulled up over my face, feeling a bit too much like the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man.  I push through the first several miles, with my head down and concentrating way too hard on the intricate ice crystal formations on the trail. A continuous drip of snot is running from my nose, and even my eyes are watering profusely from the cold air, leaving a fine layer of salt on my already tender face. 

I catch up to Catbait at a trailhead, where there’s another brown cow pond and a pit toilet.  He’s holding his water bottle and filter.

“My filter is frozen,” he says, a slight look of worry on his face.

“Mine too.” 

I unscrew the filter from my dirty water bottle, pop the ice out from around the gasket, put it in a zip lock and in the pocket of my jacket to thaw.  He does the same.  I can only hope it defrosts quickly, as I’m getting some pretty intense cottonmouth at this point.

Longbeard finally arrives, and we press him immediately regarding his filter.  “Is it frozen?  We’re thirsty, and hungry too!”

He pulls his Sawyer Mini from his pocket; thank goodness he had the foresight that we lacked.  We all take turns trying to squeeze dirty cow water through the painfully slow Mini filter.  I cold soak some oatmeal in a plastic bag, and add that to my pocket so it won’t freeze as well.  I finally get my coffee, too, and fill up a liter of water.

After we all take turns using the privy, we’re off again, bound for the comforts of Tusayan, and eager for the first views of the grand-daddy of all ditches: The Grand Canyon!  Catbait takes the lead again, with me in the middle, and Longbeard trailing behind, singing old country music lyrics as he goes.  The songs fade away as I hustle across the flat terrain, anxious to warm up again and get to town before nightfall.

By midday, things have warmed up and I start stripping off all my layers.  My filter has successfully thawed, but whether or not it’s been compromised is difficult to say.  There’s no where between here and the end to get a new one, so it’s a risk I’m going to have to take. Fingers crossed I don’t get giardia this late in the game, I’ve come too far now.

I stop briefly at another trailhead, where a family is unpacking their car for a day hike with their little ones.  I’m hoping for a bit of trail magic from them, so I linger about trying my best to look pathetic.  They only smile at me though, and I move on.  There’s been no sight of the other two for awhile now, so I enjoy the first glimpse of the Grand Canyon by myself; just off in the distance, one can see the thin line of crimson rock of the North Rim, which is slightly higher in elevation than the South Rim, peeking up against a bluebird sky. 

The North Rim rises just above the South Rim of the Grand Canyon

This moment of quiet admiration and wonder is suddenly shattered by the onslaught of helicopters; tours from Vegas, Tusayan and Flagstaff, competing against each other for airspace.  At 11:00 a.m. sharp it begins, low flying noise polluters that descend upon the canyon in a constant stream.  I pop in my earbuds to drown out the ‘Apocalypse Now’ vibes, and try to continue on in bliss.

About ten miles out from Tusayan, I hole up under a pine tree to eat a late lunch.  I haven’t got much left in my food bag, except for a bit of candy and a couple more packets of oatmeal.  I annihilate the remainder of my goods, which gives Longbeard enough time to catch back up to me.  He’s now singing along to Bruce Springsteen.  We walk along together, and he’s feeling a bit philosophical and chatting my ear off as we go.  We enter more ponderosa forest, which eventually gives way to golden prairie as we approach town.

It’s early evening when we reach town, and Catbait has scored a room at the Holiday Inn Express.  I would’ve been happy just passing through town, grabbing a bite and then being on my way, but this is a nice surprise which I won’t refuse.  After getting some junk food and beer at a gas station, we head to the hotel and freshen up with a shower.  All my clothes are stinky and I hate putting them back on after cleaning up, but it is what it is. 

For dinner, we go the Mexican resturant down the road, which has come highly recommended in the comments on Guthook.  It lives up to the hype, and I fill my belly with spicy fajitas and a couple of Dos Equis.  It’s nice being in the company of other hikers again, to laugh over our little miseries and mistakes.  I’m quite happy in this moment, and tomorrow I’ll be in one of the most spectacular places on earth.

Tusayan to the South Rim, MATHER CAMPROUND, 7 MILES

The three of us are in no hurry this morning, as we only have a short distance to go to get into the park.  The plan is to secure a permit for a campsite in the canyon for the following night, along the South Kaibab trail, and just stay tonight at the hiker site in Mather Campground.  We’ve worked hard to get here, and we deserve to do the ‘tourist thing’ on the South Rim for a day.  

We fill up at the continental breakfast buffet at the hotel, taking several trips to get cinnamon rolls as they get refilled.  With the afternoon sun upon us, and a bit of giddiness in our spirits, we set off towards Grand Canyon National Park…on a paved trail?

I guess that’s what you have to look forward to at such a popular destination: ease, accessibility and pandering to the masses.  The ‘trail’ is paved all the way from Tusayan and past the gates into the park, extra wide and gently graded, meandering through juniper scrub and pinyons.  It doesn’t feel right, and I can’t help but think of Edward Abbey’s criticisms of tourism in the parks:              

“You can’t see anything from a car; you’ve got to get out of the goddamn contraption and walk, better yet crawl, on hands and knees, over the sandstone and through the thornbrush and cactus. When traces of blood begin to mark your trail, you’ll see something, maybe.”  -Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire  

Once we throw up our shelters at the campground, it’s time to split up for a bit.  Catbait has tasked himself with securing the permit for tomorrow night, and I have laundry to do and a resupply to fetch at the post office.  After all my errands are done, and I’m feeling fresh again, I get a beer at the lodge, and take in the views from the South Rim (apologies, Mr. Abbey). 

 

In the evening, we meet up again, and Catbait is quite proud of himself at having romanced the ranger into issuing us a permit for the stock site at Cottonwood Campground (I’m fairly certain they give most AZT thru-hikers the stock sites, but I don’t want to hurt his feelings by mentioning this).  We enjoy a variety of happy hour plates at the lodge together, and walk back to the campground after dark.  Back at camp, I curl up in my quilt, and finish off a to-go box of soggy (but still yummy) nachos from the bar.  

The South Rim to Cottonwood Campground, 17 MILES

In the morning, it’s back to the paved trail for a few miles until we reach Yaki Point, where we’ll pick up the South Kaibab Trail into the Grand Canyon.  When we arrive, crowds of tourists have already gathered, and the mule train is queuing up for a trip down to Phantom Ranch.  Some of the tourists are eyeing our packs, and want to know just what the heck we’re up to, but I’m not in the mood to explain the thru-hike to anybody. How can you sum up a thru-hike in just a few words?  The boys do all the talking, and I’m thankful for that.  And just when I think that maybe I’m being a tad too dismissive, somebody pipes in with “it’s a good thing you’re with these two guys!”  

“I just met them.  I’ve been solo for the last 600 miles.”    I’m not going to let my achievements be undermined so easily.  And now, we hike!

 

There’s a steady flow of curious day hikers out, as we cruise down, down, downwards towards the Colorado River, flying past Ooh Aah Point, and a good amount of people who must have a fear of heights and are thus clinging to the walls of the canyon along the trail.  We reach Skeleton Point in no time, but it’s much easier going down than up, isn’t it?  This is the destination for most casual day hikers, and there’s no shame in that, and after a brief break to hydrate and have a snack, we’re off again. 

The crowds have thinned exponentially, and the only thing we have to step aside for now is the mule trains coming back up.   We reach the Black Suspension Bridge over the Colorado River by early afternoon, and spirits are high with excitement.  I’ve never made it this far down into the Grand Canyon, and I’m beaming from ear to ear.  What a truly special moment this is! 

We decide to stop off at Phantom Ranch for a celebratory beer or two, and I can’t wait to see what this infamous lodge looks like.  A helicopter flies low over the river, cutting away from the Colorado and up Cottonwood towards the ranch.  With it, a bundle of supplies for the rangers and employees and guests of the ranch.  This helicopter, I’ve decided, is far less annoying than the others, and there’s a certain romance to it.  

Guests are lounging about in the shade outside the Cantina of Phantom Ranch when we arrive, laughing and peeling dirty boots and socks off their feet.  What a treat it must be to have the opportunity to stay at such an iconic location; surrounded by the glowing orange sandstone, whispering cottonwoods, and the babbling clear Bright Angel Creek.  Another thing to add to the ol’ bucket list.

We fill up on water at the spigot on the side of the Cantina, and ditch the packs.  A window above us opens up, and a somewhat familiar face pops out, although I can’t quite place where I’ve met this guy.  

“Are you thru-hikers?”  

“Yep.” 

“Come on in, I’ll hook you guys up.”   

The cantina is loud and bustling with kinfolk: people who have arrived on foot or by raft.  Longbeard purchases the first round, and as I’m sitting and enjoying myself, it hits me:  our bartender, and the guy who invited us in, is someone I kind-of-sort-of know from my southbound PCT thru-hike.  

“Pinkman.”  

He was the mod for the SOBO Facebook group, and although we had never met in person, I knew him and we had communicated a few times via social media.  After a second round, he packs up a few beers for us to take on the go, and on the house.   

“Stop by anytime.”  He says as we’re departing, and I hope I get to run into him again in the future.  

Now, hitting the trail again after a couple of beers has never been an easy task for me, especially when I start gaining steady elevation towards the North Rim.  A few miles in from Phantom Ranch, and I’m exhausted.  I obsessively check Guthook, moaning over the mileage and elevation profile.  Catbait and Longbeard zoom ahead of me, and I’m alone again.  Thankfully, it’s cool out, and the water sources are plentiful.  

I hobble into the stock site at Cottonwood Camp just as it’s getting dark, thoroughly defeated.  Longbeard hands me a beer from the stash, and I put up my shelter before the temperature dips below that sub freezing line.  Dinner is beans and rice with a slice of cheese, tucked into a flour tortilla, and nothing has tasted better.  Sleep comes easy, thanks to the beer.  

Cottonwood Camp to the North Rim Boundary

An early start, as we have a long way to go and a big climb just ahead of us. 

The elevations gain towards the North Rim smacks you immediately leaving camp, and has you gasping for air the whole way.  It’s slow going on yet another frigid morning, and it takes a good couple of hours to reach our first break spot just 5 miles or so in, at a rest station.  There’s a spigot here, and a bench to sit on.  I make myself another cup of coffee, as I can tell it’s going to be a tough day.

Onward we go, steadily climbing and crossing treacherous frozen waterfalls across the trail.  We don’t know just whats ahead; will there still be snow on the North Rim?  This area of the park isn’t even open yet, at least not until the end of May.  And here we are, trucking towards an increased feeling of desolation.  All is quiet, except the sound of rock falling away from the canyon walls.

When we arrive at Coconino Point, we discover that there is, in fact, still snow on the North Rim.  And it’s deep.  With the trail still covered in a good amount of snow pack, we proceed with caution.  Finding good footing isn’t easy, with the snow being firmly packed under a solid layer of ice.  Once we reach the Rim, we breathe a collective sigh of relief.  This is temporary, however, when we see just what is before us:  several more feet of snow, and no trail in sight. 

We find the spigot that’s been turned on for us thru-hikers, near a visitors area.  There’s also a bathroom, with heat in it, and the thought crosses my mind to just stay the night in the toilet.  The guys are anxious to find the trail, though, and not too keen on illegal camping within the park (I don’t blame them).  We find the trailhead across the road, but no track has been cut and it would be incredibly difficult to find our way in the fading daylight.  We still have quite a ways to go to the park boundary, after all.  We give it an attempt, using navigation to find the route for a few miles, but then give up and follow a snow mobile track instead.  After several hard miles, the track ends at a road that’s only moderately been cleared, and we walk that.

We reach the boundary for the park in the pre-dusk hours, and snow begins to flutter down from the sky.  There’s a small rangers cabin just off in the distance, with a covered porch, and does it ever look inviting.  We head over, and knock on the door.  No one’s home, and the windows are shuttered.  Snowshoe tracks cross the snow towards the road, away from the cabin.  Someone was here recently, and then bailed.  With the cabin being empty, we won’t exactly be imposing, so we cram our shelters onto the front porch.  What a sight it is, two tents and a tarp, bumped up against each other, with guylines stretching in every direction to look like a spider’s web.  And yet, surprisingly, it’s cozy and not that cold.

The North Rim Boundary to Jacob Lake, 30 miles

In the morning, it’s quickly decided that we won’t be torturing ourselves by trying to route find across the fields of deep snow between here and Jacob Lake.  We’ll be walking the road, which in itself, is still under several feet of the white stuff.  The big challenge today, besides the snow travel, will be water; everything is still frozen, and the only one of us with a stove to melt snow (Catbait), is out of fuel.

The road stretches out before us for miles.  Signs are nearly covered to the top by snow, and there is no sign of life besides three fools trekking across the tundra.  There’s a gas station convenience store that we take a break at, but it too is abandoned.  Catbait wants to push to Jacob Lake today, some 30 miles, which I’m hesitant to commit too.  Walking in the snow is exhausting, but camping in the snow with a tarp really isn’t much fun either. The sound of the wind whipping across the plain is chilling, and we leave the shelter of the gas station to trek through a deserted town that’s dark along all the edges.

The hours and miles fall behind us, and we’re looking for something, anything, interesting to talk about.  Then, as we round a bend in the road, we hear the distinctive sound of machinery.  Are they clearing the road?

They are indeed!  Two giant machines are working gradually pushing away the snow pack from the road.  As we approach, we hop up onto the incredibly tall banks to keep clear.  I wave at the men working the road; it’s good to see other people!  Even if they’re looking at us like we’re lunatics.  Our gray and gloomy day seems to be over, and the sun is now out and shining down on us.

There is way more snow than I had ever imagined.  From the cleared road, it’s a bit more easy sailing, but we still haven’t found any water, and all three of us are fresh out.

Just ahead, and off in a field, there appears to be a frozen over pond.  We check Guthook, and confirm that it’s a cow tank.  I’m the first to cross the field, and see just how close I can get to the small patch of water that isn’t completely frozen over.  The guys wait at the fence line, and just when I turn to call back at them that it’s safe- CRASH.  I’ve fallen through, but only up to my knees.  I fill up my bottles in the holes I’ve created in the ice, and head back to the fence line with even more soggy feet.

“Proceed with caution.” 

Now that we’re on more clear road, and finally hydrated, we can really cruise.  I’m feeling more confident in reaching Jacob Lake by tonight, and I pick up the pace.  The scenery into town is a bit dismal, through a windswept burn area.  But beyond that: mountains, red rock cliffs and the high desert stretches on into Utah.  We’re nearly there, we’re almost done. 

On a normal day, Jacob Lake would be a pit stop for car tourists on their way to the North Rim.  There’s a gas station, a diner and motel, all bundled up in one building.  We arrive at dark, and get a room.  There will be no snow camping for us tonight, just some good old fashioned luxury and heat.  More tourists arrive as we eat dinner, grumbling over why the road into the park is closed, and my eye twitches.

“SNOW!” I want to shout it, but I won’t. The hostess is handling it far better than I could have. 

“Look around you, snow EVERYWHERE!”

Tonight, I watch TV after I shower.  The film ‘Groundhog Day’ with Bill Murray is airing, and I drink a beer while I watch in bed.  But there’s too much snow in this movie, so I turn it off and go to sleep.

Jacob Lake to WINTER Road, 20 MILES

Again, another late start getting back to hiking, and eventually finishing this thing.  We have time: only 30 miles to go until we reach the AZT Northern Terminus, and my friend from Phoenix won’t be there until tomorrow afternoon to pick me up.  And what better way to kill time than to gorge ourselves on pancakes at the diner before heading out?  

Since we road walked into Jacob Lake, we have to road walk a few miles back to where the trail picks up again at a trailhead beside the highway.  From here, we’re walking through a selective logging area, which really isn’t very charming.  This goes on for some time, and feels quite dismal.  It’s a rather gray day, with overcast clouds and I’m oddly feeling sad about ending the trail.  I suppose this is natural, but a difficult thing to cope with nonetheless.   The logging area eventually gives way to more healthy forest, and the air smells of pine and juniper.  The guys are ahead of me, trucking along at a fast pace that I don’t care to match in this moment.  I’m trying to absorb my surroundings, to take it with me when it’s over.  

The forest thins out and becomes more desert like, with an abundance of cactus and sage.  At a dirt road crossing, likely only used by ranchers judging by the state of it, we make camp for the last time.  We’ve packed out some more beer to celebrate with, but I’m tired and just want to breathe in the smell of juniper and sage one last time.

Dirt Road Crossing to Utah State Line/AZT Northern Terminus

I lay in bed longer than I should, filled with mixed emotions about the day ahead of me. Catbait has already packed up and says he’ll see us ahead. I gather up my things, and solemnly drink my coffee. Longbeard does the same.

There’s a lag to my step today, and I stop to enjoy the views and enjoy the moment. This is it. In a couple of hours, I’ll have walked 800 miles across the great state of Arizona. How is it you can feel so proud, happy and heartbroken all at once?

The noon sun is high when we catch back up to Catbait. Utah is right in front of us. A part of me wants to just keep on walking, right into those red slot canyons, under some sandstone arches, and down some aspen lined washes. But that’s a new adventure, meant for another day.

The three of us descend down the hill, across that dusty plateau where Buckskin Mountain welcomes us. Now, we stand at the terminus, ending our journey.

I hiked through the Huachuca, Santa Rita, Rincon, Superstitions, Santa Catalina, Mazatzal mountains, and San Fransisco Peaks.

Traversed the Mogollon Rim, Coconino and Kaibab Plateaus.

I conquered extreme temperatures, lightning storms and more snow than I thought Arizona was capable of.

My feet were wet 80% of the time. And I was cold, A LOT.

And when I thought I’d be alone the entire way, I found friendship.

So, thank you, Arizona, even for the low points, and all the heaps of good and joyous moments. And for letting me realize just how much I’m actually capable of.

2 Comments

  1. relaxed hiker

    Thanks for sharing your adventures. I have enjoyed your honesty and frankness. I have had many of the same emotions when backpacking. Its the hardest fun of all.

    Like

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