AZT Journal Days 20-25
Day 20 (55.0 miles)
I was happy to put on new, dry, non-frozen shoes this morning. I began my ascent up and around Humphreys Peak, the highest in Arizona. I had been getting great views of it for two days. It reminded me of the cascades last year on the pct. you’ll see a mountain for days and then skirt around the west or east side of it. Maybe it’s not as badass as submitting, but I am not really a mountaineer. Just a simple hiker. I like the pleasantry of getting close to a peak but not having to summit it. Maybe that makes me weak. Meh. I had noticed last night that there were footprints in the snow patches, and they continued as I got above 8000 feet and the snow became a constant. It seemed some section hiker was going to save me from postholing all day! But alas, around 6:30 I passed a tent, and the footprints disappeared. It was my trail to break from then on. As I climbed up through a pine forest the snow as deep, heavy, and not quite frozen. Horrible for hiking. But around 8800 feet I came above tree line and the tundra was frozen over which made for much easier hiking. I created at 9000 then stayed around that elevation for two miles. I could hear the ski lift running, and even saw a snowmobile go by. It’s March 19. Sheesh. To my luck, a snowmobile seemingly had traveled big sections of the AZT up there, so as I started to work my way down the north side I was saved a lot of work, physical and navigational, by walking in its tracks. As I descended back into the pines the snow was even worse on this side, and I tried to mentally prepare for a few more hours of postholing. It’s a physical challenge for sure, but really just an exercise In patience. You just have to be willing to go slow and get wet feet for a really long time. However, I was saved again. A cross country skier has laid tracks all the way down the mountain headed NW, the exact direction I needed to go. I followed their tracks for over a mile, and by the time they disappeared, the snow was completely manageable again. By 10:30 I was below 7500, and snow free again. Such a relief to have those miles done and behind me, and hiked rather efficiently too considering the conditions. But this is the AZT, you never know what’s next. Almost immediately after I came below snowline, I came to the first water source I was expecting and found it dry. The next one was too. And as I walked along the exposed, sunny, dirt road that was trail, I realized water was all of a sudden quite scarce. This has to be only trail on which you can go from postholing to having water issues in a matter of a few miles. Finally, after seemingly forever without water, I walked to a possible wildlife tabjca quarter mile off trail and found it full and flowing. How relieved I was. Only a mile later I came to cedar ranch trailhead, where there was a cache. I took two more liters, and walked out with my full four liter capacity. It was the first time I’ve done that on this hike. There were probable sources over the next few miles but with how dry it had been I didn’t want to take any chances. Besides, I was starting to feel like it could be a good night for a moonlight hike. Detour had told me to make sure I do one out here. Tomorrow night the moon will be full but it’s been super bright the last few nights and the conditions were good. Flat, open, exposed, dirt road walk. Perfect for a moonlight walk. I walked into the afternoon and put my music on, and I felt like it was the kind of hike I expected from az. I marched on the plateau, seeing forever, with the San Francisco’s behind me. It was a good, cool feeling. Thru hikes are never what you expect, but sometimes you get a bit of what you had pictured and it’s very cool. I walked as the sun set, and right as it’s last light left I stopped for dinner. I was a bit worried about my moonlight, as it was a rather cloudy night. But I stopped and ate, and put on some extra layers. Surely as I was finishing packing up again, the moon appeared from behind the clouds and lit up the whole plateau. The night hike was one of the coolest experiences I can remember having. Every so often on a thru hike you can’t help but remark how awesome a life you are living. I felt that way as I cruised through the middle of the night under moonlight, never once touching my headlamp. I figured I’d go til about midnight. At 11:56 I hit 55.0 miles, a new PR for me. I didn’t even set up my tarp. I dropped my ground tarp, blew up the mattress, ate a cliff bar and got under the quilt.
Day 21 (35.5 miles)
I woke up at my usual 4:30 and it didn’t even really feel like I slept. Typically when camping I’ll wake up 3 or 4 times during the night, just for a minute and check what time it is. When I’m sleeping 9 hours it isn’t that big a deal. But when I only sleep 4 hours, like last night, it makes it seem like I never fell asleep. I so badly wanted to go back to sleep, but didn’t want to waste my effort yesterday. So I got up, packed up, and started waking. It was a cold morning, and as I slowly climbed the Coconino Rim it got colder, and patchy snow covered more and more of the trail. For most of the morning I felt pretty good actually, alert and solid. But around 10 I started to get groggy, and the muscles started hurting like it was the end of the day. I knew I had to power through. It was a frustrating hike today. The whole time I just wanted to get to Grand Canyon Village and get a hotel room. I usually splurge on one or two hotels per thru hike. This felt like the best time, even though I was sure National Park prices would be insane. So I powered through the day, and made the 35 miles in good time, getting to the village around 4:30. There was a room available (something which I was anxious about all day) and I got it despite how freaking expensive it was. Much to my dismay there was no cell service nor WiFi in my room. Only a really crappy connection when I hung out in the lobby. I had to take care of chores too. The laundry facility was a ten minute walk so I had to go back and forth from there a few times, with a grocery store stop too to grab snacks and dinner. I tried FaceTiming mom and it was such a bad connection we couldn’t really talk. It’s really frustrating. I’m so nervous about the north rim. The rim to rim tomorrow should be a fine hike. It’s going to rain all day but I don’t think the hike itself will be a problem. But once I’m on the north rim, I have no idea what to expect. I mean I do. I think it’ll be the worst snow I’ve ever had to deal with. And it’s remote, and I’ll be the only one out there. I don’t have a spot device right now either since mine broke during the storm in the Mazzies. So I’m just feeling really scared about it. I was having panic attacks all day about falling into the snow, getting stuck and freezing to death. It sounds so silly to write it out, but is it? I don’t know. So I just want to have a real conversation with mom and dad. I’ll try again in the morning. I can’t leave before 8:30 anyways since I need my Resupply box from the PO. Finishing my laundry up now. Then I’ll try the WiFi one more time then go to my room to duct tape some rips in my wind pants and get stuff clean and organized. I feel incredibly lonely. I’m in a big, commercialized National park with probably thousands of other people, and I feel so god damn scared and alone.
Day 22 (24.0 miles)
I woke up from a glorious 10 hours of sleep at 6:15; it was the first day of spring. So of course there was an inch of snow outside my room and it was still coming down. I took a shower then made my way to the lodge to get breakfast and try to talk to mom and dad before I left. I got up in between buffet plates to use the bathroom and who do I see but Payphone, Stitch and her little brother! So crazy we happened to run into one another as I had been trying to contact them but wasn’t able to. We all sat down and shared tales of our past few days. It turned out stitch and her brother had a hotel room deserved, so there was the option for me to zero and stay with them if I wanted. It was still snowing, and for a little bit I thought that’s what I’d do. But I took the shuttle over to the backcountry permit office and talked to a ranger there. He told me I could camp on the north rim, and suggested I walk the road north to Jacob lake to avoid dangerous snow drifts. So I figured I’d hike out today. I said goodbye to stitch and Payphone and headed to the post office. I quickly packed up my resupply which was my heaviest yet. Then I headed out. As I walked the 1.8 miles to get to the actual canyon snow and sunlight alternated. My nerves were high. The north rim has been increasingly fear inducing. But as I made my way out of the pines and caught my first glimpse of the canyon, all nerves disappeared. It is so impressive. From then on I was captivated by it. As I made my way down it got warm in a hurry. By the time I’d lost 1000 feet I had shed my jacket. Breezes, which were cold and unwelcome a mere few miles back on the rim now felt good and refreshing. This being the Grand Canyon, I passed hordes of day hikers. I always liked that. It reminded me of hiking into Yosemite valley last year. I like speeding by the day hikers and hearing their impressed remarks. My ego is definitely too big. Oh well. Weather was weird. It would be sunny one instant then raining the next. But it never rained for more than a few minutes so I stayed dry. I got to the bottom and crossed the Colorado on a cool bridge. Such an awesome river. I stopped at phantom ranch, the bougie glamping spot they have down there, and went to the little cafeteria to eat my lunch. As soon as I walked in the guy working at the counter noticed my pct tattoo and asked if I had hiked it. I looked up and immediately recognized him. It was Pinkman, who I met in Skykomish last year. I love how small the community is. You can meet someone you’ve met before at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Great to talk to a fellow thru hiker as I had lunch. But it was a quick stop as I wanted to get to the north rim before dark. No sooner did I head up towards it then all the day hikers disappeared. Immediately I felt the remoteness of it. As I climbed my way back up and out I realized going down was like going back in time, and now I was headed forward again. The canyon is fascinating. I was awe struck all day. Most of the climb up was pretty easy, save the last three miles. I got to the top around 6:45 and made my way to the campground. I found two other hikers camped under a front porch of a building. This is exactly the setup I was looking for so I joined them. It’s freaking cold. Wish I could have written more but I want to get tucked in now.
Day 23 (19.1 miles)
I tried sleeping with my water bladder last night but it got too annoying. I even wrapped it in the turkey oven bag I stuff my quilt into but it sweat through that so I took it out at risk of it freezing. To my pleasant surprise it wasn’t frozen when I woke up, so I had water. I packed up quickly and followed my tracks back from the north rim campground to the trail, where it intersects with AZ 67. Both of them go all the way to Jacob lake, I had to decide which to take. It wasn’t a hard decision. I climbed over the huge drift to where the “trail” began, and fell into an even bigger drift. That was all I needed to make my choice. I started walking the road, glad to be in the tracks of a snowmobile. Unfortunately, it made a turn onto a dirt road less than a mile in and from then on it was going to be me breaking trail. I passed a sign, “Jacob Lake 41 miles”. I took a deep breath. I knew how hard this was going to be, and how long it would feel. The snow on the road had a powdery first layer from yesterday/last nights snow fall, on top of a packed down, 4-5 foot deep bottom layer. My steps would easily push through the powder into the packed snow. It meant my postholes weren’t too deep, but my shoes and legs got covered in snow and very wet, very fast. About two hours into my walk I spotted something moving ahead. Sure enough, it was two cross country skiers. They were skiing from Jacob lake to the rim and then hiking a rim to rim. I commended them on their adventure and thanked them for leaving some tracks for me to walk in. Unfortunately the ski tracks didn’t really help, and I passed where they had camped last night shortly, and their tracks from yesterday were already covered up. As I trudged on I could feel myself getting tired. I wasn’t actually going too slow, but the snow just zaps your energy. I passed the exit to Grand Canyon National Park, 5 mies to the North Rim Country Store. I knew it was closed for the winter, but hoped to find some kind of overhang or shelter from the wind and cold. Over those 5 miles the cloudy sky became darker and it started to spit a wintery rain/snow mix. By the time I was a mile from the store I knew I needed to be smart. I got there, and found an overhang with packed snow under it. I made the decision to call the day early and set up my tarp under. I could have hiked more miles, it was only noon, but I knew I wasn’t getting all the way to Jacob lake tonight. This seemed like the safest place to camp. Plus, and it’s hard to admit, but I’m ready to be done. The north rim conditions have made up my mind and I think I will finish in Utah. Even with how much this is slowing me down I could still probably yo-yo in 50 days. But this isn’t the hike I thought I’d have. It’s a full on, 100% winter backpacking trip and I just didn’t really sign up for that. So I think the trail gods kind of forced me into camping here tonight. It’s going to give me a lot of daylight hours to really think about this hike. Think about why it didn’t go the way I wanted. Think about what that means. Think about how it effects me as a hiker, and a man. I’m not entirely safe yet either. Setting up the tent alone was a really difficult job. Most of the stakes wouldn’t stay in the snow so I spent nearly 20 minutes building ice balls around them. Also, there has been no water all day. So I have to rely on snow to drink. Normally this wouldn’t be a big deal, but I’m not carrying a stove. My only option is to fill my bladder with snow and tuck it under my jacket in my quilt to melt it. So I guess I’ll spend the rest of the day melting snow and thinking about this hike. I’m ready to be home. It’s hard to admit that because I do love thru hiking. And the last week or so since I got over the letdown in pine has been a really good week. Flagstaff, and yesterday doing the rim to rim are going to be particularly good memories. But it’s so cold. There’s so much snow. I’m ready to be done, and home. It’s going to be a long afternoon and night. And tomorrow I still have 25 miles by my estimation of road walking to Jacob lake. I should be able to make it, but it’ll be a long, cold, miserable day. Walking in the snow tests you like almost nothing else does. Lying here is testing me too. Just waiting, hour after hour, huddled in my quilt trying to stay warm. I keep thinking about where I’d rather be. At home, watching basketball with dad. In the outer banks, enjoying the sunny beach with friends. In LA, laughing at inside jokes with Ray. When you’re out here in the cold and have to be patient and wait to get out of it, it really makes you appreciate what you left back home. I guess that’s something I actually like about thru hiking. It makes you remember what you’re missing. I know I’ll miss being on trail probably as soon as I’m off it. Maybe I have a problem with wanting what I’m not doing. But I’ll have to really remember this moment. Trapped in the cold in the middle of nowhere on the north rim of the grand canyon. It makes going to work and being annoyed at questions your dad asks you seem not so bad. Life is funny. Every hike I’ve ever done has taught me so many important lessons. I’m sure this one will be no different. But they may be harder lessons to come to terms with than I’m used to. That’s ok. Maybe I’m ready to learn some of the harder lessons. Maybe that’s why the trail gods are putting me through this ordeal. Or maybe I just underestimated Arizona winter and none of this means anything. Who knows. Clearly I’m starting to go slightly insane in the quilt. Your mind can run in circles when it has nothing to do but run. Gah. This turned into a weird journal entry. Fitting. It’s been a weird day. And a weird hike. It’s almost 6:00 now and I’ve at me my cold dinner and brushed my teeth and peed. Just got snug in the quilt again. Time for a long night. And a long day tomorrow. Cold can do things to you man.
Day 24 (30.2 miles)
I woke up periodically throughout the night, it was really cold. Based on my experience I’d estimate it got down to about 15 degrees. I had to turn the sleeves of my puffy inside out and drape it over myself and zip it up halfway to act as a second quilt. It helped a little bit. But it was a frigid night. When 4:30 rolled around the last thing I wanted to do was get out of my quilt, but I knew I had to. It was a scary kind of cold morning. I can only remember a few mornings like it early on my AT hike, and that was in January in Georgia. It was the kind of cold in which exposed fingers had about 2 minutes before they went numb, and maybe 2 more after that before they started to get the blue tint of early frostbite. Everything was frozen. Condensation on my tent and quilt had frozen them, shoes were frozen solid and I had to sit on them while I ate breakfast. I have to take my gloves off to pack everything up, I need the nimbleness of my fingers. It was brutal. I kept having to take 30 second breaks between stuffing things frantically into my bag to shove my fingers down my pants to get the feeling back. I got it all packed up, totally frozen, and set off on what was sure to be a dangerously cold hike. The moon was still bright enough to light my way so I set off with no headlamp. The first problem I ran into was that there was some moisture in my gloves, and they froze instantly when exposed. So I had to stuff them in the pockets of my puffy, which I rarely hike in but absolutely had on this morning. So no trekking poles for me. I had to tuck them under my arm. The snot from my nose ran into my mustache and froze immediately. I was also walking through a layer of frost just hovering in the air that coated everything. All of my stuff frozen, including my quilt, borderline hypothermic, I came to a tough but calm realization: I had to make it to Jacob lake. It was 25 miles, and I was pretty sure if I just stayed moving I would be ok and make it. But it’s a strange thought. Hike 25 miles, or die. It didn’t freak me out, but that was absolutely the position I was in this morning. So I walked. When the snow got deep I walked slower and stayed patient, and when it was hard and crisp I walked faster. It was quite beautiful today. Before the sun really came up I could look out onto the vast, open tundra and really explore its size and magnificence visually. When the sun did make its way up though I had to protect my eyes. Fortunately it brought warmth with it, and after about 4 hours of walking I was able to take my puffy off and start using my trekking poles again. From then on I knew I was going to make it, and was able to enjoy the hike much more. As I peaked out at 8840 feet I got great views of the canyon and Humphreys way beyond it to the south, as well as Utah and the Escalante to the north. What a special part of the world this is. Six miles from Jacob lake, I finally came to where they had plowed the road to, and the rest was an easy walk in. I got to jacob lake, which is literally an inn and a gas station, and for a room. Its been a strange afternoon. I’ve done all the normal thru hiker chores one does when they have an inside place to sleep. I dried my stuff out, I washed my socks in the shower since there’s no laundry. I bought some junk food at the gas station and pigged out while watching some basketball. I even popped a blister on my right heel in preparation to hike tomorrow. But tomorrow the hike ends. It feels abrupt. And weird. Which is fine. I hope it still feels good. I hope I get something at Utah. I don’t really know what it’ll be. I’m going to have a good hike tomorrow. I won’t be on a thru hike again for over four months, and that does make me sad. But I’m glad it does. I’m burnt out, and the AZT beat me down in a lot of ways. But I’m nowhere near hanging up the trail runners. I even spent some time on my road walk today looking at other trails on guthooks, dreaming about doing them and when I can squeeze them into my plans. 25 days is not a long time at all for a thru hike. 25 days into my pct hike I took a zero in Los Angeles, a mere 20% done with the trail. I am looking forward to some thru hikes that are longer than 25 days again. Where I’ll have hotel stays I really need that really get me ready for another week of hiking. But that wasn’t this hike. That’s ok.
Day 25 (27.1 miles)
I slept in a bit today, knowing I didn’t have a completely full day ahead of me. I felt groggy and had a headache upon waking up. Probably because of all the sugar and junk food I ate last night. Oh well. Left the hotel in jacob lake at 7 and finished the 2 mile road walk to the trail by 7:40. It felt good to walk on normal trail again. Even with some serious snow patches in the early going before I lost elevation, it just felt good to walk on dirt, not postholing. It’s like an entirely different activity. As I slowly descended off the Kaibab plateau the snow became less and less of an issue, and I was cruising. For most of the day it didn’t feel like the last day of a thru hike. Just a normal day, as if I had many hundreds of miles and weeks still to go. By lunch time the sun was high and warm and I shed all my outer layers. I like hiking in just the shorts, tee and hat. It feels natural. It makes me feel like an athlete too. The afternoon hike was a bunch of little ups and downs along a ridgeline. I kept getting little glimpses of the Utah Escalante, to which I was now pretty close. But it wasn’t until the final three miles that it took my breath away. As I began to drop off the ridge the tree line cleared, and I saw the vast, red rocks of Utah spanning ahead of me. I even saw boulder mountain in the distance, a mountain I bicycled over two years ago. It was almost as if nature had drawn the state line, looking down I could see the yellow of Arizona turn to the dark red of Utah. It made me want to keep walking once I got to the state line, into the canyons and mountains of Utah that I have loved so much when I’ve been able to explore them. As I descended those last few miles down there state line, I felt so much appreciation for how this trail ends. It’s not Mt Katahdin, but in its own way the AZT saved the best for last. Or, I should say it ended in the right way. I strolled into state line campground and came to the little monument marking the northern terminus of the AZT. I didn’t really feel much at first. I took a few photos, then walked around the campground beginning a search for a ride. I gave up on that quickly and decided to start walking the road. But before I left, I stopped at the monument once more. There was a poem on the back, from Dale Shewalter, the man who came up with the idea for the AZT. As I read it all the emotion that has been so vibrant in me on this hike came back, and at the second to last stanza I lost it. “The aches and pains will fade away, you’ll feel renewed and whole, you’ll never be the same again, with Arizona in your soul.” I sat on the monument and cried for a few minutes. Not out of sadness at my failure in trying for a yo-yo. Not out of happiness in completing a thru hike. Just from how overwhelming Arizona was. Right from the start the AZT was so intense. It tested me so much. It best me down. And it will always be with me because of that. I will go on to other hikes, and the memories of how hard this hike was on me will become just that, memories. They won’t be as real and vivid as they are now. But I will never be the same again. Because of Arizona. For that reason, I sat there and cried. I will miss Arizona. I pulled it together after a few minutes and walked out to the road. About a mile down a car came behind me and I stuck my thumb out. Luckily enough they stopped and offered me a ride. It was a man with his son and mother, headed back home to Big Water, UT from a day of hiking. I was in luck as this would at least get me halfway to Page, AZ, where I could either camp or try to get a hitch to Flagstaff from there. From Big Water I only had to wait about five minutes to get a hitch to Page. The guy who picked me up dropped me off around 20 minutes before dark. I started walking down the highway, half looking for a spot to stealth camp and half looking up for cars to try to hitch from. As the sun went down over the desert horizon I thought about calling it. But just as dusk settled in I got a car! It was a woman, by herself, probably about my age. I was shocked she stopped, I don’t think I’ve ever gotten a hitch from a woman by herself. turns out she was headed all the way to flagstaff, I had found my ride! She was a really fun car partner. She was on her way back to Tucson from a week of hiking and exploring up in Utah. We shared travel stories and talked about books, school, hiking, life. It was a really fun ride. My favorite hitch I’ve ever gotten probably. She took me all the way to melody and tim’s in flag, where melody came out to greet me. I made it from the trail to flagstaff in about 4 hours. Not bad at all. So the hike is over. It was a weird one, so I feel weird about it. But I’m glad I did it. I’m glad I’ll have these memories. I’m sure I’ll have more thoughts on it soon. For now, I’m happy to be finished, and ready for whatever’s next.