Bittersweet Endings

Waking up in the soft morning light, air thick with the scent of the pines, on a giant island in the sky. A feeling, a momentary state of being, too complex or too simple to express in words. No thought of the future, or the world beyond. Just that.

Enjoy it while you can

That morning near the summit of the Rincon’s Micah Peak, I clung to that state as long as I could. With just a week left on trail, every aspect of the thru-hiker lifestyle gained greater importance. I took care lacing my shoes that morning, thanking my feet for carrying me over 3000 miles despite the daily abuse and neglect. As I set off, I reflected on the lesson in humility I got the night before, the trail always reminding us that every body has its limits.

Sweep and Overhill had already left, as usual. We quickly reached the crest and began dropping towards Manning Camp, where we found luxury in the form of a privy with a foot-pump powered hand washing station! The trail then followed a narrow water course as it descended through the forest. Just as I began to ponder why it was called Saguaro National Park, the trees gave way to classic Arizona desert. Towering Saguaros guarded the rims of rocky canyons, and the firm ground in between was dotted with cholla and other menacing yet fascinating plant life.

Morning light on the pines outside Manning Camp

Just before I rounded the corner into the desert

Mesmerized by the desert, or maybe the effects of the baking sun, I took the wrong trail at a signed junction. Unfortunately, I only realized my mistake after descending for almost a mile and a half. Letting my frustration get the best of me, I began running back uphill. Everyone else had missed the turn too! We took a moment to evaluate alternate options for getting back on the AZT, but in the end there was nothing to do but retrace our steps.

Beware the heat of the desert

Taking a three mile detour at midday in the desert is, well, not ideal. We were still about nine miles from our next source as we got back on track. Just before stopping for lunch in a shaded wash, I nearly tripped on someone lying across the trail in full sunlight. Alarmed, I asked if they were ok.

They were wearing a ball cap, buttoned shirt, khakis, and tennis shoes, but didn’t appear to have so much as a water bottle with them. They assured me they were fine, though I was a bit concerned since the nearest road was at least three miles away. I told them there were three more coming down, hoping they would at least move to a safer place to rest, then made a beeline for the shade of the overhanging rocks.

We took modest sips of water during lunch and discussed the strange encounter with the day hiker. We speculated what they might have been doing that far out in the desert with no supplies, heading farther up the mountain. Tempted to sleep in the drowsy afternoon heat, I knew that water was the priority and got moving.

Let’s try this running thing

Ever since meeting Ohm Boy near the end of the PCT, I had been growing more and more interested in adding running to my list of pedestrian proficiencies. That afternoon, I took it into my head that running to the next source would somehow alleviate my water stress. It didn’t.

Still, as I flowed along gently twisting desert single track, I caught the running bug. The faster pace didn’t prevent me from soaking in the world around me, and the entire trail experience felt new and exciting. A different rhythm, a different challenge, but still that same euphoric feeling. I’m sure it helped that I was running on a slow decline the whole time. I ran to the park boundary, then caught my breath with a few miles of walking, and jogged the rest of the way through a broad canyon to the spigot.

I paused briefly at the Park boundary to gaze back on the formidable Rincon

Surrounded by flat ground with nowhere to camp

Kirby showed up to the picnic area not long after me, having run a good bit since lunch as well. The water tasted like the pipe it flowed through, but I didn’t let that stop me from drinking nearly a liter in very short order. Steel and Per Bear showed up and we discussed camping options while Per took his usual spigot bath. Though we had a ready source of water and had already put in some bonus miles, we agreed that it was too early to stop if we wanted to spend time in town the next day.

Looking at the map, we figured there would be several points in the next few miles where we could set up camp. Rehydrated, we set off under the most purple sunset I’ve ever seen. We continued slowly down as the canyon opened back into good old flat desert. The stars came out, and so did our headlamps, as we intensified our search. There was cholla everywhere! Occasionally I saw a clear patch large enough for one sleeping bag, but nobody wanted to camp alone.

The sky does weird colors

It was quite late by the time we reached a pipeline service road not far from the interstate. Several more miles than we had planned to go, but finally a place to rest our heads. And, we had less than a mile to get to the trailhead where we could hitch into Vail for our final resupply. Sadly, Steel told us he was going to hitch to Tucson for a few days off to enjoy Thanksgiving with his wife and some old friends.

Stay Outta Vail, Deadbeats!

We got a pretty quick hitch into town from the Las Cienegas Wildlife Preserve trailhead, and made straight for breakfast at a gas station. Nobody was in a rush as we gorged ourselves, making the most of the time with Steel before we had to split up. Vail is an honest-to-goodness suburb of Tucson, where people didn’t really know why we were so dirty and smelly. It was an odd experience that I hadn’t really had since back on the AT. Uncertain we would be able to hitch around town, Steel offered to call a Lyft to take us to Wal-Mart.

You should know by now that I bought way too much food. How, after 3500 miles of hiking, do I still not know how to resupply? The suburban Wal-Mart didn’t have the usual benches outside, and a manager came over and asked us to leave as Per Bear and I tried to break down all the packaging. We politely obliged and moved instead to the picnic table in the employee break area. We had to say sad goodbyes to Steel before catching another Lyft to get lunch at a taco truck. How tight a bond you can form in just two weeks!

I feel like the town food on the AZT kept getting better the farther South we went. I was quite drowsy as we set to hitching on the scorching shoulder of the road out of town. It seemed like a nearby school had just let out for the day, and we got plenty of sideways stares as the minutes ticked by. After nearly an hour, a sheriffs car approached us with its lights and siren on. Goddamn it.

The officer informed us that we couldn’t hitch-hike. Then asked for our IDs and told us to wait. Thankfully Per still had a valid Canadian passport from living in Calgary, which was probably less odd to a southern Arizona sheriff’s deputy than a Norwegian one. During that time, two more cars pulled up. Despite all of the hullabaloo, we got our IDs back and quickly abandoned the shoulder for a nearby bar. Finally, we found some friendly locals, and some even lamented our bad experience with the cops. Eventually we had downed a few beers and another meal each, but still had no luck getting a ride back to the trail.

For the third time that day, we had to turn to ride share to get back to the trail. It was well past dark at that point, so what did we do? Camped in the trailhead parking lot, duh. The day’s events had me on edge, but we had a seriously deep and inspiring conversation before falling asleep. I slept well knowing that I had made such a strong bond with such intelligent, caring, and optimistic people.

Through the Santa Ritas

First thing in the morning, we got to pass through the iconic snake tunnel under I-10, a sure sign that our days on trail were numbered. The trail wound through dry brush in the foothills, dotted with the new constructions of America’s every-expanding suburbs. Eventually we left those behind and began climbing double tracks into the heart of the Santa Rita range.

Livestock wars

In the afternoon we stopped at a cow trough for water. We couldn’t find the pipe that supposedly provided clear ground water, but the trough contents weren’t too bad and we got plenty to take us to Kentucky Camp that night. The trail continued to follow rocky, dusty forest roads along the spine of the mountains. The Huachuca Range to the East lit up spectacularly in the glow of the sunset as we continued to pound out the miles. As dark settled, we had to dodge some locals ripping around on their side-by-sides.

As usual, I had waited till I absolutely couldn’t see my feet before fishing out my headlamp. Just as I got to that point, I could see a large hulking mass ahead of me on the road. My headlamp revealed a large herd of cattle just standing there, unimpressed by my intentions of walking to Mexico. I had to whoop and yell for a few minutes before they lumbered out of the way. Kirby and Per Bear were visible as two small lights behind me, but I could also see the distinct glow of a campfire near where I figured Kentucky Camp would be.

It’s never too late to make friends

As I neared the circle of flickering light, the gathered people invited me over with the promise of camp chairs and beer. Crash and Myoggy were there, and it was Myoggy’s friends who had come out to hang out for the evening. How exciting that we had new friends for the last few days on trail! Crash (@thehikingstory) had hiked the PCT NOBO earlier in the year, but we couldn’t remember having crossed paths there. We enjoyed the campfire camaraderie until the non-hikers had to head back to town, and promptly fell asleep.

The air was quite chilly on Thanksgiving morning as we started down the trail to Patagonia. Unsurprisingly, the world got a lot hotter as the sun came up. Soon we were sliding and falling down steep roads coming out of the beautiful Mt Wrightson Wilderness. Myoggy, who lives part-time in a nearby town, taught us about the local flora while we ate lunch in the shade of a scrappy-looking oak tree. From there we began the final descent into town, a gentle but exposed dirt road where temperatures crept up over 90°.

“NOT A ROAD,” says the confusing sign on the side of what was very obviously a road…

The AZT passes down Patagonia’s main street, but we had all prepared ourselves to find every business shuttered for the holiday. Miraculously, the bar attached to the hotel was open! I got to talk to my parents while we relaxed in the wonderful air conditioning, watching football and drinking beer. There wasn’t anybody else around, and after a little while the bartender told us we had free range on the leftovers from the hotel’s Thanksgiving buffet!

On a day when many regular people eat like Hiker Trash, we put on a real show. The leftovers didn’t stand a chance against five hungry hikers. I started with two plates, one for meats and one for sides. I filled a third plate with the remnants of the less-popular sides and a few slices of pie buried under whipped cream. In the middle of all this, we met Freebird and Raven, two long-time hikers who had temporarily settled in Patagonia while deciding on their next adventure. It was awesome getting to hear their stories. It had gotten dark by the time all of the food was gone, and Freebird and Raven showed us to a spot in town where we could camp undisturbed.

The final push

The previous day’s heat disappeared into the clear night sky, and in the morning we awoke to frozen water bottles and frosted sleeping bags. Before leaving town we warmed up with some hot coffee at a cafe, and picked up the traditional end-of-trail beer. Back on trail, I quickly settled into a groove on the gorgeous single track through a small canyon. We took an early lunch at a nice stream, taking the opportunity for the last round of trail laundry. Early on in the hike, washing socks in the stream had seemed such a mundane chore, but that day it felt like a profound act, like it was the last chance to express a part of myself.

Saw this buddy on the road walk out of town

From there, we began climbing into the Canelo Hills. It turned out to be one of my favorite sections on the whole trail. Rolling hills, wide open views, and plenty of room for us to walk alongside each other and talk. Miller Peak, the final summit just 8 miles north of the trail’s end, rose to dense green heights out of the pale grasslands all around.

There was only one moderately tough climb in the afternoon, and Kirby and I blazed the way to the top well ahead of the boys. We sat for a moment at the top, contemplating the sinking sun and the vastness of our experience. It was the final sunset on trail. Not the most spectacular, but absolutely perfect. Unique like each one before it. From how many different places had I watched this same event, having gotten there only with the aid of my own two feet. I was lost in thought as we regrouped and started the last few miles to camp.

Have I ever mentioned that the AZT has the best trail gates of anywhere ever?

Myoggy planed to take an alternate route the next day that would allow him to hike directly to his house at the boundary of the Coronado National Monument, and camped before the rest of us. Then we would drive out to pick us up and host us for the night. We camped at the Parker Canyon Lake Trailhead, leaving about 20 miles with a serious climb to finish the trail. Like on the PCT, I had trouble sleeping with so much on my mind. We all left quite early in the morning.

I actual had a bit of trouble navigating through a few washes in the dark, and we all kept leapfrogging each other having taken various routes up and across them. I hit the real climbing with Crash, entering the Miller Peak Wilderness as the sun finally crested the towering ridges. It was a long way up, and Crash soon left me in the dust. After what felt like endless switchbacks, we gained the ridge and followed that the rest of the way up. It was gorgeous up there, once more among the bright pines that thrive high above the desert.

Miller Peak is a heavy climb to finish on

Entering the pines along the final ridgeline

I made it to Bathtub Spring, probably a top 5 water source for the entire trail, and tried to wait for Kirby and Per Bear so we could finish together. But for whatever reason, my left foot and my stomach were teaming up to inflict their final miseries upon me, and I knew after a short break that it was now or never. Just eight miles downhill, and that would be it. My foot calmed down with some Vitamin I, but my stomach fought hard and I had to make a final emergency pit stop just a mile past the spring.

Miller is a popular destination for day hikers, but I wasn’t in a social mood and kept my head down as I passed each group. The descent became rather technical as it neared Montezuma Pass, but I paid it little mind. I was done with Miller Peak. Time to just be there. I was a bit surprised to feel this way, until I stopped to consider just how mentally and physically exhausting it is to hike 3500 miles with just a few days off scattered throughout.

At the pass, I quoted a few lines from a track by Run The Jewels in the register (this had become a habit of mine) that had resonated with me for much of the AZT. “I’ve never been much of shit / By most measurements don’t exist / On the radar a little blip in the shadow of motherships.” There is nothing like a thru hike to give you a true sense of your relative size in the scale of the universe. And yet, just by existing we are a spectacularly significant part of the whole story, miniscule though we may be. Cheerful thoughts for the last mile and a half, eh?

And then, there it was

As far as southern termini go, the AZT blows the PCT out of the fucking water. The border was hardly distinguishable, a faint clearing through the arid landscape. Because the trail wound in and out of several small canyons, it was difficult to tell how close I was getting to the anticipated silver monument. It appeared around a corner much sooner than I had expected. No dragged out, dramatic final steps like I had in Campo. One second I was hiking, the next I was done.

I had no tears this time, just goofy faces and disturbing little laughs as I circled the monument. The border beer came out, and I crouched into the inadequate shade of a short bush to wait for Crash, Per, and Kirby. We shared high fives and real laughter as we celebrated the end of the trail together. I felt intensely relaxed, accepting that the task was done and it was time to begin the recovery process. It was honestly a huge relief. And yet, I wasn’t ready to start thinking about the life beyond the trail that demanded my attention. That was a problem for a different day…

Notice the border fence on the left? This is a view to the East. Think about it.

Oh lookit that, I made it!

Couldn’t have asked for better friends. I’m so lucky to have met Per Bear and Kirby and privileged to have walked through the most amazing places with them.

There’s not really a good way to end the story. Saying goodbye to the trail was hard, but also exciting. There is a -0% chance that I won’t thru hike again. Sometime down the road, I will get to say hello again.

I hope you’ve enjoyed following my adventure, severely belated though the final pieces were. Get out there. Go see shit. Have fun, and always Leave No Trace. And make sure to tell me the stories you make while you’re out there. -Righteous

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