Since I’d first heard of it in 2016, the Arizona Trail has captured my imagination. Completed only five years earlier in 2011, it stretches nearly 800 miles north-to-south down the length of the state, from Utah all the way to Mexico. Along the way, the vast and often unsung diversity of Arizona is on display
Arizona Trail 2021
Daily dispatches and photos from the Arizona Trail, a 788-mile footpath stretching across the state of Arizona from Utah to Mexico.
Discombobulated. No, too strong. Confused. Not exactly. “I feel foggy headed,” says Ace, succinctly serving up the answer to my internal question as we sit down at a brief early morning break to remove our wind shirts. The question: what exactly is going on with my brain this morning?
There are—apparently—two constants to the soundtrack of hiking atop the Kaibab Plateau in autumn: the telltale crunch of small, angular stones beneath each step; and the trembling of aspen leaves in even the slightest breeze, a sound that could easily be mistaken for gentle raindrops.
I can see the flash through my eyelids. One one-thousand, two one-thousand, three one-thousand....boom. From our snug little tent tucked into the trees it went on like this for an hour as I tracked the movement of the storm without so much as opening an eye, counting from lightning to thunder as it approached, passed above us, and then receded into the distance.
When you take your first step off the North Rim and onto the North Kaibab Trail, it is your first step into a different world. Gone are the ponderosa pine, traded for pinyons and eventually catclaw acacia, yucca, and all manner of cacti. The white Kaibab limestone yields to red sandstone which gives way to band upon band of other rock formations of varying colors and textures.
One hundred miles north, far from the banks of the Bright Angel Creek on which we slept, Bryce Canyon National Park sits at the top of a geological feature few will notice. Known as The Grand Staircase, layer upon layer of sedimentary rock stretches from the high elevations of Bryce Canyon all the way to bottom of the Grand Canyon, telling the story of 600 million years of the planet’s history.
After two days of what can only be described as sensory overload, my first thought was: did I really just see that? Getting up close and personal with one of the world’s greatest natural wonders will do that to you. My second thought was more akin to wondering what price the trail would now exact in exchange for those past two days.
They were right there. The same place they always were. At least until—apparently—they weren’t. The mittens that had been dangling from my sternum strap were nowhere to be found. Not exactly the start to the morning you dream about.
The lightning flashed without even a whimper of thunder, so distant was it. The crescent moon that hours earlier had tucked the sun into bed and took its place in the sky was nowhere to be found, obscured by banks of thick, dark clouds that should not have been there.
Some things—most things—are more than they seem. Hiding in plain sight, things we often attribute a hasty label to and understanding of harbor qualities that make them exceptional. Worthy of greater attention. Of greater appreciation. It’s as true of things as it is of people.
I’m never quite sure. That’s the problem. You’d think 10,000 miles of trails would have clarified an answer to what is otherwise a simple question, but here I am. Having taken not one but two zero days in Flagstaff, the question remains: is a day off more likely to rest weary legs or accumulate rust upon them?
Deep in the heart of the world’s largest ponderosa pine forest is not the place one might typically think of evoking imagery of the ocean. In every direction, a uniform pattern of trunks and canopies extends toward all points of the compass in such a way that it’s difficult to imagine the forest ever coming to an end. The trail snakes its way through a labyrinth of sameness that makes it feel almost disorienting.
Bang. Silence. Another bang. The gunshots reporting in the not-so-distance were all the reminder we needed that hunting season was in full effect. Exiting our camp site that was nestled into a cozy thicket of pines, we turned down the trail and passed a succession of pickup trucks, presumably belonging to nearby hunters out stalking their prey on another chilly autumn morning.
The morning discovered us in a state now quite familiar: strolling past a shallow depression full of dark brown water. Fine crystals of frost on nearby meadow grasses sparkled in the first rays of sunlight, while those that had been warmed for but a few minutes had already melted into droplets that now weighed heavily on the blades to which they clung.
Diverse. That’s the word that kept rattling through the recesses of my brain while following the now red ribbon of trail beneath my feet. Gently rising and falling far more frequently than at any preceding mile of the trail thus far, we traversed around drainages and ascended over small shoulders of ridges before descending to a neighboring wash.
One highway dividing two starkly different trails. That was the realization that was coming clear to us as we surveyed field upon field of rock leading off toward distant waves of low lying clouds.
Aside from our plunge into the depths of the Grand Canyon and our subsequent reemergence, the trail since Utah has been largely devoid of any significant climbing—until today. In the first minutes after leaving our camp at the base of a climb, any pretense that our legs might have been under about the leisure with which we’d stroll our way to Mexico had vanished.
The stars hang motionless, quiet, flecks of salt on an endless piece of black construction paper stretched above our heads. The crickets, less quietly, perform their discordant symphony from a score known only to them. The distant hum of a plane’s jet engine racing across the sky begins as a dull thud, builds to a roar, and disappears behind the mountain.
The southwest is a land of mystery. Of wide open space and eerie desolation. The kind that you can easily fill with all of your fears—the setting of the drama becoming a character all its own.
Your eyes are not your friend. Well, part of them anyway. The eyes that soak in every shade of the flames of sunrise emanating from the eastern horizon and illuminating Roosevelt Lake far below? That part is telling you the truth. The other part that tells you that lake—the destination of our next resupply tomorrow—doesn’t look so far away? That’s the lying part.
Strange. I don’t remember there being rocks under me. In the trance-like state between dreaming and waking, not a whole lot makes sense. Yet, as the dust from my recent slumber settled, it was starting to making quite a lot of sense. I just didn’t like what it added up to.
The last time I looked up at the sky, it was filled with nothing but stars. By the middle of the night, those same stars were nowhere to be found, as though they might never have been there at all. Was I dreaming?
Another day, another few million scrapes, jabs, cuts, and pin pricks from all manner of plants that seem dead set on reaching out and getting a bit too familiar with anything that might be passing by. In this case: us. So it seems only fitting to turn the spotlight on these floral “friends” whose penchant for inappropriate touching is downright criminal.
Along with two other hikers, we rode along in the car of trail angel MJ, watching the comforts of Superior shrink out the back window on our way back to the trail. Another zero day gone in the blink of an eye, it was back to the work of shrinking the distance between us and Mexico.
My mind floats an inch or two just above where my head is. Almost imperceptibly detached from the rest of me, it examines the trail that is about to pass beneath me. It imagines what a passerby might see if they look at me in this moment. Eyes glazed over with concentration. Sweat and salt caked to my shirt.
To watch the desert sunrise or sunset is, in some sense, to witness it for the first time. An expanse of land brought to life with color beneath an equally expansive sky, only to have the sunset slowly steal those very same colors in exchange for an ocean of stars. Blackness yielding to layers of gray before deep hues of blue, red and orange bleed away
Every trail has days like today. Hell, the last 4 days. The rest of life is no different. In between the few snapshots worthy of putting on display for anyone who might care to see them, the real work takes place. Quiet. Sweat. Fatigue. Pain. Frustration. Elation. A thousand other qualities, none of which anyone gets to see but us.
We slept in a ditch. Not exactly like the one from the CDT last year, and certainly not this one from the PCT—I’m beginning to sense a troubling pattern—but a sandy, flat, wash nonetheless a literal stone’s throw from passing traffic.
When she pulled up in her 30-year-old pickup truck, honking jubilantly as she did, I had a feeling we were in for quite a time on our resupply stopover. DD, our trail angel host for the rest of the day and night, was a spitfire force of nature. Alternately with a joint, chewing tobbaco, or a beer in her mouth—sometimes all three…
I didn’t remember having gone to sleep in the Sierra, but after rubbing the sleep both from my eyes and from my legs it sure seemed like that’s where I’d woken up. Scattered pines, lumps of stone, a trickling stream. It even had the blackened char of a recent burn clinging to the bark of surviving trees.
The flames dance and flicker to the music of a barely perceptible breeze floating down through the Ponderosa pines. Daylight fades, and the red embers pulse and shimmer.
I told myself to file away the morning’s chill into my memory bank for safe keeping. Like a mental block of ice, I had a feeling I would soon be in need of opening the mental freezer to find some measure of relief from the oven we’d soon be descending into.
Honest question: What day is it? Away from the routines and patterns of home, it’s remarkable how something so familiar vanishes so quickly, each day seamlessly bleeding into the next, only the rising and setting of the sun demarcating one day from the next.
Absolutes are tiring. And also pointless. Stepping back onto the trail after nearly 48 hours worth of rest, my state of being clean does not—surprisingly—disappear in an instant. Little by little, sweat, dirt, and sunscreen conspire against this newfound state of cleanliness and begin to return me to a version of clean more becoming of a thru-hiker.
The overgrown grass of an epic monsoon season now seems to coat every hillside. At daybreak, the sun turns it all a golden, buttery hue that is difficult to forget. A brief window of time where it feels like you are seeing things as they truly are, saturated in colors that will soon be washed away by a sun ascending to its throne high in the sky.
The rock strewn dirt road we’d arrived at just as dusk cast a pall of gray over the mountainside was more than just a home for the night. It was now our yellow brick road—albeit a less brightly colored one—leading us to a distant town stop that we could not see, an Oz of a far less fantastical sort.
Open at 5am. That’s what the hand-written sign hanging from the door had promised, though the lady inside insisted it was wrong: they actually open at 4.
Stars, sunsets, sunrises, distant mountains. This trail has been full of them—atmospheric settings abounding in a land of vast open space. Day after day your eyes are drawn to them, these obvious sights, and yet to focus only on them is to overlook that which is right in front of you.
Divorce, loss, upheaval, trauma. For as long as there has been wilderness there have been people who seek its healing and its catharsis. Packing with them emotional baggage as heavy as that which rests upon their shoulders, I’ve never counted myself among them—until now.