Arizona Trail – Dropping Off the Rim

Day 14 – 14 miles

Magic Mike dropped me back off at the trailhead by noon and I walked the mile back to the AZT. I was disconsolate. While I love zero days I find it particularly difficult to walk away from the safety and security of family. I knew I would snap out of it by the time I camped and I had a sandwich from Subway to look forward to! The trail was fairly flat most of the day. After a few miles in the forest the trail opened to plains with juniper spread widely apart. I was surprised when I reached a ridge and suddenly had a few of Upper Lake Mary – beautiful. I set up camp and bedded down in the insect-less silence.

Day 15 – 24 miles

The temperature had dropped in the night. I warmed up my hiking clothes in my sleeping bag and then reluctantly began packing. I hiked on a rocky dirt road for five miles before the trail took me back into forest. Several signs highlighted an old logging and train route paralleling the trail. The trail took me through a forest service campground, closed for the season, but with open pit toilets, garbage dumpsters and a flowing creek. I passed a pleasant 30 minutes here for lunch. The rest of the day the trail was easy leaving me free to reflect on the simplicity of trail life. There was something immensely satisfying in packing up my entire world each morning into a backpack and setting off in a direction. My daily goals revolved around mileage, water, food and feasible camp spots. When I had cell service I minimally interacted with the world through social media. The only news I cared about was the weather and water reports. On the trail life boiled down to just the necessities and it was wonderfully freeing. When my husband picked me up for my zero my mind was filled only with thoughts of a shower and real food. However, I was abruptly reacquainted with the wider world when I watched the news that evening. While I had been hiking the House of Representatives had gone into disarray with the ouster of the speaker and Hamas had attacked Israel. And I had been oblivious.

Day 16 – 24 miles

It was cold again this morning. I awoke at 0430 and stuffed all my clothes in my sleeping bag with me to warm them up. I was hiking by 0700 but was wearing all my clothes and my gloves and had to walk quickly to stay warm. The trail went through mostly forest again today. I had lunch near a wildlife tank. As I was scooping water from the tank to filter I looked up and saw two cows sitting on the far side staring at me. I looked down at my water, shrugged and added an iodine tablet to the bottles. I needed the water. I walked around the wide meadow away from the tank and saw hundreds of cattle moving into the open space. As I neared the far side I saw four cowboys herding the cattle through a gate. In front of me was only forest – where had all the cattle come from? Towards late afternoon I passed by a father and his two sons outfitted in camouflage. They were hunting elk but hadn’t had any luck so far. Three miles later I heard loud elk bugling. As I crested a small hill I looked down at another wildlife tank surrounded by an elk herd. Three small elk frolicked on the edge of the pond while the cows and two bulls watched. I stayed as still as possible watching them and hoping I wasn’t in a hunter’s crosshairs. Later that night I fell asleep to elk bugling all around me.

Day 17 – 24 miles

The elk bugling continued all night and into the beginning of my hike this morning but I never saw any more elk. I was wearing all my clothes again in the chilly air. Today the AZT was rerouted 15 miles to the east around a controlled burn. The smoke was hazy as I approached the detour start; although I could smell it the smoke didn’t affect my breathing. I walked a quarter mile to a Ranger station off of Highway 87 to fill up with fresh water from a spigot and use the pit toilet. The detour was on well-graded, albeit steep, dirt road with no access to water. As the sun rose I became increasingly hot and thirsty but I had to ration water because the next water source wouldn’t be until the next day. I was exhausted when the detour joined back on the main AZT but kept hiking until sunset looking for a campsite. The main trail had been steep and rocky in the forest and I knew this was only a sample of what was to come in the next week.

Day 18 – 24 miles

After a long hot day I was surprised by how cold the night became. I started out the day again bundled in my cold weather gear. Despite having gloves on my hands remained cold and I had to repeatedly stop walking to blow on my fingers. The trail traversed a pretty section of forest but I as I crossed a dry creek bed I thought about all the times the trail crossed and recrossed dry creek beds. I wondered if water would be flowing in these beds in the spring. I emerged from the forest, hiked up a steep dirt road and came to the edge of the Mogollon Rim. I gasped in delight at the view. The Rim is a 200-mile long escarpment that forms the southwestern edge of the Colorado Plateau. I had been on the plateau since roughly the start of the hike. Here now at the edge of the rim my hike was literally and figuratively about to change. The descent from the Rim was steep and rocky but with each step the air grew increasingly warmer so that by the time I had descended 1,100 feet to the East Verde River I had removed all my outer clothing and my cold hands were a distant memory. Smiling at my earlier thoughts about dry creek beds I swiftly filtered water from the river and guzzled two liters before I felt quenched. The AZT joins the Highline Trail for the next 17 miles to the Pine Trailhead. The trail here was well maintained but rocky and lined with juniper, manzanita and oak trees. The trail was mostly exposed and I felt the sun reflecting off of the red stone and clay. I filled up with water at another creek (flowing!) and pushed on. The views of the Rim were incredible and it was hard not to stop and stare at the vista. I also noted the distant Mazatzal Mountains and Four Peaks which were next up in my trail itinerary. It was after dark when I arrived at the Pine trail head and Magic Mike was there to pick me up for another zero, this time in Payson.

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