Across The Finish Line – The Trek

Across The Finish Line  The Trek

It was a disappointing start to the day. I’d chosen my hotel, in part, because of its free breakfast, but they wouldn’t be serving anything that morning. Oh well. Some days your Pop-Tarts have no frosting. Other days, you find an extra tortilla in the pack. The trail giveth, and the trail taketh away.

I ate a sandwich for breakfast, and checked out just before eight. After rejoining the Flagstaff Urban Trails System, I followed the AZT north across town. It was very windy, but that hadn’t deterred the more dedicated Sunday morning hikers. The trail was quiet, once again, on the other side of Buffalo Park. As I crossed Mount Elden Lookout Road, I took a spur-of-the-moment detour. I followed the road for about two miles, and continued west at Highway 180. Less than half a mile later, I walked into a Shell gas station. It was the last outpost on the northwest edge of town. My final taste of civilization until reaching the Grand Canyon. An opportunity to replace that sandwich.

I walked carefully beside Highway 180 for another mile, then turned right in the direction of Fort Valley Trailhead. Most of the people staying there looked like #VanLifers rather than weekend warriors. Two miles later, I was back on the Arizona Trail. About 10 miles after that, I found a sheltered place to camp at Bismarck Lake.

Humphreys Peak from Bismarck Lake.

Hi, desert

The wind subsided during the night, and even though I camped above 8500 feet, it didn’t get too cold. Continuing north, I descended the lower slopes of Humphreys Peak, and dropped below the tree-line around 7000 feet. The trail levelled off soon after, but I didn’t see pine trees again for two days. At that elevation, I was slightly taken aback to find myself in the desert. It shouldn’t have come as a complete surprise. This was Arizona, after all.

Once the trail started its gradual ascent of the Coconino Plateau, the trees returned and the nights got colder. I camped on the Coconino Rim, close enough to the Grand Canyon that I could see the higher elevations of the north rim. There was a slightly better view of the canyon the following morning, from the top of the Grandview Lookout Tower. I also made a quick stop at the gas station in Tusayan, then continued at a brisk pace to Mather Campground. I arrived just after midday, hoping that a walk-in site was still available.

The Grand Canyon, from Grandview Lookout Tower.

Smooth sailing

I shouldn’t have worried. There are two adjacent group sites for walk-ins, and both had plenty of space. My next priority was a permit for camping in the Grand Canyon the following night. At the Backcountry Information Center, I told them I was hiking the AZT, and asked about Cottonwood Campground. Surprisingly, even though walk-in permits are usually gone by the afternoon, there was still space.

On past visits to the Grand Canyon, Park Rangers at the BIC have always shown concern that I might get into difficulties. This time, the Ranger was much more relaxed. My guess is that AZT hikers are at lower risk of needing to be rescued from the canyon, compared to most tourists. The Ranger added my name to an existing permit with three other AZT hikers on it, and told me which site to use. The entire process was much smoother than I thought it would be. As I turned to leave, I noticed the next day’s weather forecast for the inner canyon. The temperature was predicted to reach 102℉ at Phantom Ranch.

The Grand Canyon Village Market wasn’t as expensive as I expected. I bought some extra food, just in case I had trouble getting from the AZT’s northern terminus back to civilization. Then I returned to my campsite to find that a few more people had arrived. Some of us went for dinner at the Yavapai Tavern, and it turned into a late night, by thru-hiker standards. I didn’t go to bed until 11 PM.

A quick aside

During my first few days on the AZT, I talked to several thru-hikers who I’d describe as “casually competitive.” They’d done at least one of the big three trails, and on the AZT, they intended to cover mileage in the high 20’s or low 30’s each day. (They also typically came prepared with a full-length trail beard on day one.) They were in a hurry, not to meet a deadline, but apparently because they viewed the Arizona Trail as a racetrack.

Which got me thinking. I imagined a walking competition where participants tried to look like they weren’t competing. How would I stack up against my imaginary competitors? Well, here’s a list of my fictional achievements.

  • 1999 British Ambling Grand Prix (Winner.)
  • 2002 Inaugural Sauntering World Championship (Runner-up.)
  • 2003 Philip Morris Moseying Invitational (Disqualified – for taking it too seriously.)

I should once again state, for the record, that I didn’t lose my mind. It just did a lot of wandering. I’d also like to thank my fellow thru-hikers. Tortoises and Hares alike, you made the Arizona Trail more fun: Aaron, Bad Camper, Barb, Big Mac, Brer Rabbit, Carrie, Chocolate, Christmas Chili, Circles, Cooper, Costanza, DJ Cakes, Dan, Deb, Dermott, Dirt, Dozer, FKA Beacon, Frank, Gary, Happy Hour, Jay Bird, Jesse, Joe, Julie, Kim, Kirsten, Mark, Marmot, Mike, Mission, Motown, No-Go, One Step, Psyched, Rebecca, Red, Reels, Rick, Rudolph, Russell, Samwise, Scurvy, She-Ra, Sherri, Sky, Steggie, Stephen, TVP, Ten Speed, The Giver, The Sheriff, Too Hot, Trail Doc, Trapper, Trash Pockets, Twofer, Van Gogh, Wein.

Race to the bottom

I was wide awake at 4:20 AM, eager to get moving. Leaving Mather Campground, I passed a small group of wild horses who ignored me completely, and kept grazing. Just after 6 AM, the Grand Canyon came into view in all of its spectacularly-over-the-top glory. I stopped for a moment and grinned. It was good to be back. No matter how many times I visit, that view will always make me smile.

It wasn’t far to the South Kaibab Trailhead, and I arrived at the same time as one of the shuttle buses. Its doors opened, and for several seconds, a steady stream of hikers emerged. Clothed in clean, fresh, brightly-colored gear, most of them paused to get organized. A few recognized that a traffic jam was imminent, and made a beeline for the trail. I chased after them.

And so began a seven mile, casual competition to see who could get to the river first. The ultimate rival was the day’s high temperature, but racing against each other gave us all something to do in the meantime. As I neared the Colorado, I stepped aside for a mule-train that was just beginning the climb, and then a small group of rafters who were also heading for the rim. After crossing the black bridge, I followed the signs to Phantom Ranch.

The South Kaibab Trail and Colorado River.

Phantom Ranch

I went straight to the canteen building, where there’s a shop that sells $5 lemonades and $1 refills. The building has a bench under the eaves on its south side, and that’s where I sat for well over an hour. In that time, I spent about $10 on ice-cold lemonade, and watched as every patch of shade was slowly occupied by pink, perspiring day-hikers. A married couple, visiting from Austin, sat down on the bench next to me. We chatted, and I discovered they were both keen runners who’d completed the Boston marathon. I mentioned, as casually as possible, that I’d also run Boston.

The Austin couple left, and I started preparing for departure. As I was about to leave, a trio of hikers arrived, sweating profusely in the mid-morning sun. They saw the empty bench, walked stiffly over, and sat down. Two of them were overweight, and one of them was significantly overweight. I recommended the lemonade, but they needed to take a moment. They cheerfully complained about their aching quads and sore feet, and I privately hoped they’d be able to stay positive during what would undoubtedly be a rough afternoon. I gave them the only piece of advice I could think of.

“When the climb gets tough, thinking about tonight’s pizza and beer helps.”

The guy nearest me thought for a moment, then his eyes lit up.

“Steak,” he said. “I’m gonna have steak.”

I wished them the best of luck, and headed for the North Kaibab Trail.

Retreat from the heat

I arrived at the junction for Ribbon Falls with the sun directly overhead, and heat radiating from every surface. Cottonwood Campground wasn’t much farther, and several people had recommended that I make the detour to the falls. I crossed Bright Angel Creek (the only time on the entire AZT I had to get my feet wet) and walked the short distance to the waterfall. I sat and ate lunch in the shade, with the air super-cooled by the spray drifting downwind. After about 90 minutes, I was actually too cold, so I headed back into the furnace for one more mile.

Ribbon Falls.

At Cottonwood Campground, I shared the stock site with three hikers I’d camped with the night before. I said my goodbyes that night, and left the campsite before they emerged the next morning. The wind picked up as I climbed higher, and the air was quite cold above the rim of the canyon. The trail was essentially snow-free, with just a few remaining patches here and there. The north rim facilities wouldn’t open for another week, so there was no traffic on Highway 67 and no hikers on the trail.

That night, I camped in an area with lots of blow-down, but it was the partially-toppled trees that concerned me. They’d started to fall, but were held up by the tree next to them. As the supporting trees were buffeted by the wind, the leaning trees rubbed against them, creaking constantly, and sometimes cracking loudly. I placed my tent in a relatively safe area, but each sudden crack made me wince.

Last lap

My final three days on the Arizona Trail were extremely windy. Airborne dust limited visibility to just a few miles at the East Rim Viewpoint. The burned area north of Telephone Hill would normally provide a clear view of the Vermilion Cliffs, but not the day I passed through. A dusty layer hung in the atmosphere, twice as high as the cliffs, and shrouded everything to the east of the Kaibab Plateau.

Tater Canyon, on the Kaibab Plateau.

I camped in the most sheltered spots I could find, but still ended up with a slight bend in one of my tentpoles. When walking through the trees, the wind was bearable. When crossing meadows, I sometimes struggled to remain on the trail. The wind finally abated at sunset of my last full day. As I fell asleep, the silence was welcome, but also deafening.

I dreamt that it was my first day at a new job. Everyone in the office gathered around to welcome me, and stopped talking as they waited for me to say something. I cracked a joke into the expectant silence, and was met with a sea of blank faces. No response whatsoever. The only sound was the faint nasally whistle of someone breathing through a partially-blocked nose. As I opened my mouth to say something else, the entire open-plan office was filled with a load roar.

That’s when I woke to discover that the gale-force winds had returned. I also concluded that I wasn’t quite ready to return to normal life.

All good things

But, like it or not, the trail always comes to an end. After completing 16 miles the next day, I arrived at the terminus of the Arizona Trail. And this time, I’d come prepared.

When I reached the PCT’s southern terminus, I couldn’t think of anything to write in the logbook: it’s difficult to summarize a thru-hike in a few sentences. I gave the matter some consideration during my final days on the AZT, but unfortunately, the logbook didn’t have space for my musings. There was just a single line for each hiker’s name, date, and brief comment, so I kept my thoughts to myself until now.

5/10/22

There once was a hiker from Boise
Distracted by his inner voice, he
Walked through a state
And arrived on this date
With his head a little less noisy