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My parents and me at the start of the AZT.
This Blog is written for all my friends and family who have requested that I document my quarter-life-crisis-inspired 800-mile quest along the perilous Arizona Trail. It may also be useful to any individuals who have expressed an interest in living their lives vicariously through mine. You know who you are.
The plan is to hike south from the Utah-Arizona border all the way down to the Mexican border during the fall of 2013. On this run for the border, (brought to you by Taco Bell. Live Mas!), I hope to experience many adventures and to conquer many challenges. Some people have questioned me as to my motivations for undertaking such an undertaking. I will answer this question with a (somewhat true) story:
On the eve of my departure, my 8-year old guitar student, Edwin, informed me that no one would be presenting me any awards or prizes upon the completion of my journey. This news was most disappointing. But after much thought and reflection, I decided the experience would be its own reward. The End
I have estimated that the trek will take me approximately two months to complete; that's if I average a conservative 15-miles per day. I have portioned out about 180,000 calories worth of food to sustain my body for this amount of time. Will I be carrying my entire food supply with me for the whole journey, you ask? At an average caloric density of 120 calories/ounce, my entire supply would weigh somewhere in the ballpark of 94 pounds. So no, that would be very impractical. Instead I have set up and placed resupply boxes at strategic points (in the towns) along the trail.
Arizona is a very dry state, so you may be wondering how I will find enough water to keep myself sufficiently hydrated. I am wondering the same thing...
As I am writing this, I have already officially started my trek and completed about 50 miles of the trail. I left the trail head on Saturday, Oct. 5th. But for reasons soon to be clear, I am writing this at home and have had to make some alterations to my plans.
So now that Ive sufficiently hammed this whole thing up, lets go ahead and jump into my story as it has unfolded so far.
(P.S. Just kidding about the "not knowing how I'm going to get water" thing. I have done my due diligence and am confident that I will not have to resort to any Bear Grylls style, emergency hydration techniques. I have also set water caches in some of the dryer segments).
The time now is about 7:50pm. I'm writing this from inside my tent in which I'm snugly bundled in ALL of my clothes (besides my rain jacket and skirt... I mean kilt) inside my sleeping bag. Today's is my first journal entry thus far. I was too tired and preoccupied with other tasks over the last couple of days to write. I will write about the previous days' events now:
10/5/13 (Saturday) Mom, Dad, and I decided it would be best to start my hike a half day early in the hopes of beating a forecasted snow storm to the north rim of the Grand Canyon. After setting our final water cache in the morning we drove out to the trail head on the Utah-Arizona border and ate lunch. I did not get onto the trail until about 1:30ish. I was happy to be on the trail at last after all the planning and preparation. The days leading up to the start were kind of stressful and filled with anxiety. I was also pretty disappointed that the Grand Canyon had just recently been shut down. There was a very real chance that I might have to bypass that whole section.
It felt strange to say goodbye to my parents and then to just walk away into the wilderness. The first few miles of trail consisted of an uphill climb out of Coyote Canyon up the Kaibab Plateau. The views of the Vermillion Cliffs behind me were pretty great and they just got better the higher I got. Soon I was in the dense juniper forest of the lower Kaibab Plateau. I was expecting to find a wildlife tank (of water) somewhere after the third mile. I didn't find it where the map suggested, but further down the trail I found a concrete trough-thing with water that was supplied by two large metal tanks that were dug into the ground and protected by a sheet-metal roof. I didn't think this was the aforementioned wildlife tank but maybe it was. Maps are confusing. Anyhow, it didn't really matter anyways because I had water cached about 5 miles down the trail.
I had started noticing my first signs of foot problems around mile 5ish. The back of my right heel had already developed a mild blister from the rubbing of my shoe's ill fitting heel cup. I stopped and applied some mole skin around the area. I set up camp around 5:30 because I knew the sun would be setting at 6. I set up my tent in a spot under some junipers that looked to be popular with the cows. I had achieved a distance of about 8 or 9 miles that day, just short of my first water cache at Winter Road. I was comfortable enough for the first half of the night but my legs got cold as the night wore on. I should have brought some kind of insulating bottoms!
...It is 8:30 now and I am tired so I will continue writing tomorrow. [Which did not happen].
10/6/13 (Sunday) [Written 10/12/13 at home]
I didn't get onto the trail until about 11:00am my second day. I spent a good part of the morning sleeping in and trying to stay warm in my sleeping bag. I couldn't will myself to get up and start the day early. The cold was just too disagreeable. When I finally did get up I spent the rest of the morning dressing my heel with moleskin in an elaborate fashion. I also decided to modify my right shoe by cutting a big window in the heel cup where my heel was rubbing. I had read about somebody solving their foot problems by the same means just a couple weeks before, so I thought I'd give it a shot. It actually did solve the problem... for a while anyways. It took me a long time to cut through the sturdy shoe with my tiny pocket knife though, and I inadvertently sliced my thumb in the process. At least I now knew my knife was good and sharp. I spent more time now making a bandage for my thumb which I improvised out of reversed moleskin and duct tape.
After packing up my gear, eating, and brushing my teeth with Dr. Bronner's liquid peppermint soap, (also something I read about. Mmm, soapy... Yum! ...not really but its multi-use), I finally hit the trail. I ended up pulling off my first 20+ mile day that day. About midway through my day I stopped to rest and found that my left foot had developed the same problems as my right. I proceeded to modify my left shoe in a likewise fashion. I ate some food while I was stopped as well, but I like to eat a lot of my snacks on the go. Snickers bars, trail mix, Chips Ahoy! cookies, and fried snap peas (Inner Peas from Trader Joe's) are some of my go-to snacks. It was a really long day and I found myself continuously discouraged by the condition of my feet and the fact that I was never as far along as I thought I was whenever I checked my maps. It was nice to transition out of the shrubby junipers and into the pines (Ponderosa?) and aspens later that day though. My goal was to make it to Jacob Lake, my first resupply point. It's a small outpost which consists of an inn, gas station, gift shop, and cafe rolled into one. From my camp the night before, it was a 22 or so mile walk to get there.
By the time the sun had set I was still a few miles from Jacob Lake. I needed to make a choice whether to continue on in the dark or to set up camp while there was still enough twilight to see. I had a hard time making my mind up and finally decided to set up camp as quickly as possible so I could get into my warmish sleeping bag. This ended up being an exercise in futility though because after I had hung my food bag (for bears that probably didn't exist) and set up my tent I realized that the camp site was not going to work because of the tall grass and brush I had set my tent on which threatened to poke holes in the bottom of my thin tent floor. I was greatly frustrated at this point and the thought of getting a cheeseburger at the cafe was very alluring and comforting, so I decided to break down the camp that I'd just set up and continued on in the dark.
Shortly I arrived at highway 89A which would take me the 2 1/2 miles off the trail to Jacob Lake. I shined my headlamp into the forest as I walked along the highway but my beam of light quickly evaporated into total blackness after only a couple layers of trees. It gave me an uneasy feeling looking into that nothingness. The stars above, however, were quite stunning. I could even make out the Milkyway. Sometime after 8:00pm I finally arrived at the inn. I took off my gear in the cozy little lobby and sat down at the cafe counter and ordered a bacon cheeseburger with grilled onions. It turned out to be a beautiful burger. I almost shed a tear when the waitress placed it in front of me. But of course, I'm incapable of crying actual tears due to my grizzly mountain man status, so I proceeded straight on to eating it. I also had a lemon zucchini cookie which was pretty good for being a lemon zucchini cookie. I bought sweatpants at the gift shop too. After my meal I set up camp a quarter mile south from there just off the highway but out of sight. I slept nice and warm that night.
On the third day I was quite exhausted from the previous days effort. After bandaging my feet and breaking up camp, I made my way back to Jacob lake to pick up my resupply box. It contained the food and supplies I would need until I got to the south rim, a good 73 miles south. I went through my supplies in the lobby and threw out the excess food that I didn't think I'd want or need. I also bought some gauze (which I had heard of before but didn't know what it was until now) and some bandaging tape... oh, and a chocolate chip cookie for brunch. (I decided to eat hobbit style, i.e. 5 or 6 meals a day, for my trip). They had a water spigot outside where I filled up with about 2 liters of water. I figured this would be enough (and it was) until my next expected water source, another 20 miles away (nasty Crane Lake).
I must have set out on the trail at around 1pm that day! Well actually I wasn't technically on the AZT for another 40 minutes because I had to hike 2 miles west via dirt roads and cross-county travel to meet up with the trail. My pack weight was probably just under thirty pounds because of my five-day food supply and heavier than normal water weight. The going was slow and tedious the whole day. I probably only did a total of 7 miles. It's hunting season right now so I heard some gunshots as I walked. I heard and then saw a deer making a beeline through the forest at one point. It was moving too fast for me to tell if it was a buck or not. That night I ate a nice meal consisting of Ramen soup in a freezer bag and a Snickers With Almonds bar. It was quite satisfying actually.
I finally took some time that night to journal a little bit, which I had been meaning to do everyday. The wind picked up that night at about 1:20am which startled me and woke me up. The wind rushing through the tops of the trees in the distance sounded like an oncoming fright train. I'm not used to hearing wind in the forest. It made me worry about the structural integrity of my tent so I got up and tied down (feebly) a couple of the extra guy-lines on my rainfly. My tent would have been fine without them but it made me feel better.
On the fourth day I slept in again. I was always cold in the mornings. Not to the point of constant shivering but just enough to be uncomfortable. Some time after 8 o'clock (I was still in my tent) I was startled by a man's voice that said, "Good morning!" I responded likewise. I got out of my bag and opened my tent to see a fifty or sixty year old man in full backpacking garb waiting patiently for me (on the adjacent dirt road about 20ft away) to put on my shoes so I could come and talk. His name was John and he was from Indianapolis, Indiana. He was hiking, in segments, the famous Hayduke route which utilized this part of the AZT. I told him he was the first person I'd seen on the trail since Id started at the Utah-Arizona border. He told me the same thing except he had started approximately 10 or so miles north of the border along Hwy89 the day before I did. We tried to figure out how I had gotten ahead of him but couldn't come to a conclusion.
I told him I was having problems with my feet and shoes, so he offered to give me some of his extra moleskin. I took him up on the offer; I had been burning through my supply at an alarming rate. I went and got my food bag out of the tree while he rummaged through his pack for the moleskin. He was surprised to see that I had hung my food and sort of poked fun at me for doing so, as he didn't think there were any bears in the area. I agreed he was probably right but I wanted to err on the side of caution. I ate my breakfast of coconut cookies (the kind you buy from girl scouts) as we talked a little more. He said he typically did about 15 miles each day and that he liked to stop and take breaks to read. He also offered to camp with me that night if I wanted to. He was soon ready to get back to hiking so we said goodbye and I told him I would see him down the trail. He left and I continued my slow morning ritual of making bandages and packing up camp.
I was on the trail a couple hours later. Walking was uncomfortable and soon progressed to being painful as the day wore on. It ended up being a long day. At one point I decided to walk along the highway, the one going down to the North Rim, which at this point ran parallel with the trail. I was tired of pointlessly going up and down hills, making things even worse on my feet, while the highway stayed level on the ridge. Turns out the view was better from up there too! I was hiking through a big, long burned section at this point and luckily came across a couple of pullouts with informational/educational signs which told me about the big fire in 2006 which had caused this apparent wasteland. I also learned about aspen trees and how their roll in the eco system plays in with wildfires and the life cycle of the forest. Have I mentioned the aspens and their beautiful fall colors yet? They were everywhere and they were beautiful. Also, in the big burned section, all of the dead trees that were still upright howled ominously in the wind. Very spooky but very cool!
I met back up with the trail after following the highway for 3 or 4 miles. After the burned section, I reentered the forest. But the forest here was different than the previous forest. It had a more diverse mixture of conifers (pine trees), which included a species I was unfamiliar with that had silvery, smooth bark and a very Christmas-y appearance, along with aspens and big grassy meadows. I thought this was the most beautiful section of the trail so far. I was almost out of water at this point so I stopped at Crane Lake and reluctantly fished out about a liter of nasty swamp water.
I was hoping to have caught up with John by nightfall but I was still only following his footprints as the sun was setting. My feet had hurt all day but they were really starting to hurt now. Suddenly I felt a sharp pain in my left achilles which stopped me in my tracks. After reciting all of the swear words I knew I began to worry that I really messed something up in my foot. My whole ankle started to feel the way it feels after a bad sprain. (In hind sight, I think I just bruised my achilles from the constant digging in of my shoe's too tall and ridged heel cuffs). I didn't know what to do. I was debating whether to stop and set up camp right there to prevent any further injury to my foot, or to keep trucking along until I met up with John. I figured John would have some good insights into my problems and I didn't really want to be alone. (Maybe because I was a little scared, but probably not because rugged, grizzly, mountain men like myself don't get scared). I put some weight on my foot to test it. It seemed to do okay, especially if I used my trekking poles crutch style. I decided to keep going. I hobbled past some great looking camp sites and couldn't figure out why the hell John passed them up. And whatever happened to, "Oh, I can only do 15 miles a day."??? Crazy old man... So I just kept walking, following his endless trail of footprints into the increasing darkness.
I walked into a meadow when there was still just enough sun light beyond the horizon to dimly illuminate the low clouds with pink and purple hues. A lone pine tree (of the Christmas-y variety) stood in front of me silhouetted against the faint sunset with the crescent moon perfectly supported by the trees apex just below. I wish I had gotten a picture of it. It was a grand entrance to that night's campsite. On the far left end of the meadow I could see John's headlamp flickering as he set up his camp. He saw me approaching and came to greet me. He shouted, "Are you that guy I met this morning?". I said I was. He was really surprised to see me and assumed I was dead in the water what with my foot problems and all. He showed me to a possible spot for my tent a hundred yards or so away from his site. He was just about to fix his dinner right before I showed up but he waited and talked to me as I set up my tent so we could eat together. We talked about our gear and a little bit about our backgrounds. He said he didn't use a tent and just slept on a ground cloth and only pitched a tarp [specialized for backpacking] when the weather was bad. (This is a practice sometimes referred to as "tarp camping" and is something that I"ve been wanting to get into. It can be an incredibly light and versatile shelter system).
We went over to a log by his camp to eat dinner and continue our conversations. He lent me some hot water for my easy mac dinner because my last few ounces of potable water, not including my liter of nasty swamp water, were in the form of orange Crystal Light. He learned that I had been a music major for three years and told me that he was the director (I think... or maybe just a member) of a chamber music society in Indianapolis. His occupation was in commercial real estate, which he said he enjoyed. He was happily married and had 3(?) adult children. I enjoyed his company and was glad that I decided to keep walking until I met up with him.
After dinner, I showed him my feet. He said they didn't look as bad as he thought they were going to but still recommended that I get off the trail asap to let them heal and get new shoes. I was going to have to get a ride about 12 miles down the trail anyways because of the Grand Canyon being closed due to the government shutdown. Originally I was going to have my mom drive up from southern Arizona to drive me around the canyon. But then John started telling me about all the times he's hitchhiked (which he obviously seemed to enjoy doing) and how to go about hitchhiking successfully. He told me which kinds of vehicles and which kinds of people would typically stop, which types of vehicles to avoid, and how to present myself to maximize my chances of getting picked up. He knew his stuff. And so with that, I decided I would hitchhike back to civilization in the morning.
John was up before me that morning (as was probably 90% of the rest of America). He yelled over to my tent, "Sean, I'm leaving now." I was still pretty groggy and yelled back something like, "Okay, I'm just gonna sleep in for another hour or so." But then I figured I should stop being lazy and actually get up and go say bye to him the proper way. So I crawled out of my tent, walked over, said a few parting words, and shook his hand. Oh, one thing about John that I forgot to mention: I will always remember him as "John the Pirate." The night before, when we were sitting on the log after dinner, he turned to me and said something along the lines of, "So normally I wouldn't do this in front of someone I just met, but since were out here with no one around..." He then reached over to his pack and pulled out a little box and presented it where I could see. It was an eye patch. I grinned and muttered, "Oh man, where's this going?" He then proceeded to pop out his left eye and washed it with his bandana and some water. It was a glass eye! He showed me that it had his name and contact information on the back just in case he ever lost it. I thought that was pretty awesome.
So after I bid him a classy and proper farewell, I continued my morning ritual of bandaging my heels and packing up camp. I limped out to the highway which was only about a quarter mile west from there. I walked down the road a ways until I found a suitable place to hitch. I took off my pack, made sure it looked clean and organized, and placed it next to my feet, just the way John had described. I also took off my beanie so that drivers could see my whole face (my beautiful, ruggedly handsome, grizzly mountain man face). The second vehicle that passed me, a red pickup truck, stopped and took me to Jacob Lake, a 20-plus mile drive. I rode in the back. It was quite chilly.
In Jacob Lake I bought a pumpkin chocolate chip cookie, ate some of my food, and refilled with clean water. When I was filling up my bottle outside at the spigot, I met and talked to a young German guy who was bicycling from New York City to San Francisco. He seemed like a nice guy. I think he was pretty disappointed that the national parks were closed though.
From Jacob Lake I needed to get a ride down to Flagstaff. I figured I'd hang around there for a week or so to let my feet heal and to get new shoes. I also have friends that live there so I was looking forward to seeing them too. I walked down highway 89A a little ways toward Flagstaff and then stopped to see if I could catch a ride. The sixth car that passed me stopped and gave me a ride all 150+ miles down to Flagstaff. The driver was an older middle-aged women named Kathryn. She had a mild hippy vibe (for a conservative kid like me anyway) and had been on the road for a few months now. She didn't actually have a specific destination in mind but was kind enough to bend her general plans to take me down to Flagstaff. I think she wanted to head north towards Canyon Lands, Utah (which she had fond memories of) but the highway off of the 89A going that direction was closed because of road damage. We talked about a lot of different stuff but our conversation generally kept reverting back to our disappointment with the national parks being closed and the government shutdown.
Glad to be in Flagstaff with my kidneys intact after a successful day of hitchhiking (Thanks for not taking my kidneys, Kathryn! You're the best!), I walked to my buddies' apartment, Jonathan (a.k.a. Thomas the Train) and Josh's, to get my phone charger and some clothes I had in a resupply box that I left with them earlier. They weren't home so I went and hung out on the NAU campus. I got in touch with my other buddy, Jos, and made arrangements to stay the night at his place. It snowed that night, so I was pretty grateful to be in out of the elements. I was also very grateful for Papa John's pizza.
The next day I bought slippers (for my heels' sake) and walked around Flagstaff while it snowed. I also had some lovely hot chocolate with my lovely friend, Bethany. I talked with my mom on the phone earlier that morning and told her my plan to stay in Flagstaff for a while. My older brother just came home on leave from the Army though, so we thought it would be nice if they all drove up and took me back to Tucson for the week to heal and spend time with the family. They ended up driving me home that night.
So now I'm in Tucson, waiting for my feet to heal and anxious to get back on the trail. I think I did about 50 miles of the trail in those four days, so now I just have another 750 miles to go! And hey, I think the Grand Canyon is open now so maybe I'll be able to do that segment after all.
For anyone who is interested in learning more about the Arizona Trail, I would recommend starting at the Arizona Trail Associations website.