Total Miles: 89.0
If you’re looking for signs that you’re on the MRT, keep waiting. They don’t exist. That will change one day when word of mouth begins to work its magic on this little known route, and for many of us, it’s exactly that untrammeled state of infancy that makes the hike that much more appealing. But until the day comes when a diehard group of hikers with a fondness for this route manages to conjure a trail organization to act as its steward, its wildness will remain as it is today, with the occasional bleached bone as much a trail marker as anything.
Emerging from our cocoons of down, our perfect hammock hang among the Ponderosa pines had been another cold one. More than the cold was the realization that, for at least Ace and I, the practiced ritual of stuffing all of that warmth into our backpacks would be happening for the last time on this trail. Not far beyond that thought was the one that in less than 48 hours, the satisfaction of being home in Seattle would be tempered by the reality of a return to work, and an existence so different from this one.
Perched on the rim as we were, our morning route would take us down from its heights one final time before at last delivering us to the town of Pine where we’d relax and enjoy a day off before heading home. Save for the bubbling creek that we could hear far below, there wasn’t a sound while we hiked down the well made switchbacks under a sky filled with ruffled clouds.
Even the creek itself was a surprise, its flow seeming to defy the pages of data we had citing it as an unreliable source. Imagining this idyllic little riparian zone as anything but was almost too much for my little brain to comprehend, but it was a study in how dynamic this landscape is. In a few short months, this moving oasis would surely be gone and the experience of this canyon equally changed.
As we exited Pine Canyon and began the final traverse towards Pine, the early afternoon sun was in full effect with only an unpredictable patchwork of trees to provide an occasional bit of shade. Not quite the red rock of Sedona, but back on display was a bright blue sky hanging over the Georgia-like red clay ribbon of trail.
In some ways, the final miles of any hike are often the most challenging, mentally if not physically. The miles may slip past on gentle terrain easing back towards civilization, but knowing that it will all come to an end too soon is always an unpleasant medicine to choke down when you love something such that it’s as much a part of you as the blood within your veins. A mountain love affair is a torrid one.
Truth be told, what I was most sad about is that our trail time with Beardoh, Sweet Pea, and Mace was running short though it would soon be replaced by town time, and that most sacred of hiking rituals: eat, shower, eat, relax, repeat. I was also glad for the easygoing trail over these final miles knowing that the last thing Ace needed was another challenge to the ankle that looked like the puffed cheeks of a child who had taken a breath in preparation for blowing out birthday candles. Wading through West Clear Creek yesterday afternoon had been an unexpected ice bath, and she’d chosen each step with care just to get here.
Speaking of watching where you step, this hike has been full of uninviting trailside friends. A few feet if not inches away in any direction and at any given moment has been no less than 837 different varieties of pokey and pointy things that may look pretty to photograph but that’s just about where the hospitality ends.
As the cars in the parking lot came into view, so did a series of beautifully built metal signs announcing our convergence with the Arizona Trail. Running the length of the state of Arizona from Mexico to Utah, it was a preview of coming attractions that we hope to tackle at some point in the future following our Continental Divide Trail hike next year.
Just like that and without any fanfare, our hike had come to an end having seen not a single other hiker apart from the five of us, and I realized that I’d done something I’d never done before—my first section hike. Rather than an end-to-end thru hike of weeks or months where the early physical trials rapidly give way to an engine of perpetual motion and blisters are replaced with callouses, this is how many people experience long trails. One piece at a time, perhaps one week a year, slowly stitching together a mosaic over the course of 20, 30, or even 40 years until one day it comes to its final resolution in the form of the entire Appalachian Trail. Or the Pacific Crest Trail. Or...well, you get the idea.
I truly have no sense of what it takes to dedicate yourself to a cause for such a period of time, and I’ve always held a particular admiration for section hikers and their sense of determination. A determination that allows them to overcome the most physically challenging part of any long hike—the beginning—and to do it willingly over and over again. It’s a drive I can only guess at, but today I feel among them in the tiniest and most humble of ways, joining their ranks for the very first time.