Growth Through Failure on the Arizona Trail
I remember vividly the moment when I first learned about the Arizona Trail. I had just moved to Flagstaff for grad school and was at the local Saturday morning farmer’s market when I caught a glimpse of a tall banner of the trail. I streamlined towards it, being drawn to the long squiggly line, as most thru-hikers are. I was surprised to learn that Arizona had a long distance trail and I immediately mentally put it on my to-do list. I left the market that day with a poster copy of the trail and hung it up in my room where I would gaze at it longingly during reprieves from writing papers.
As a masters student the thesis loomed over me and I racked my brain thinking of topics to research. I knew I needed to pick something that I was extremely passionate about because the thesis writing process consumes your life. One day I was sitting at my desk running my eyes over mementos and my friends’ postcards when I stopped on the Arizona Trail poster and it hit me. I’m passionate about long distance hiking; I’ll write my thesis about the Arizona Trail. From then on I fleshed out a research question and made it work for me. The plan: hike the Arizona Trail and interview hikers along the way about their relationship with nature and environmental behavior. That way I get to hike and do research at the same time.
Fast forward a couple months to an event at a local gear shop where I met a representative from the Arizona Trail Association. I mentioned my plan and she immediately said that wouldn’t work. See, I’d have to start hiking after the semester ended in May and she said it would just be too hot to start that late. Most people start their thru-hikes in March or in the fall.
I hadn’t considered the heat in the desert but inwardly I was thinking, you don’t know me, you don’t know what I’ve done, I can do it. However, as I thought more about it another epiphany hit me; I can mountain bike it and go faster. The Arizona Trail is different from some of the other long distance trails as it allows mountain bikers and equestrians on the trail (except in wilderness areas and national parks). Great I thought, I’ll bike it and still be able to start in May cause I’ll go so much faster. The desert is flat, right?
Reality hurts like a sharp cactus in the thigh
After the semester ended I headed to the Mexico border with my mom (I convinced her to fly out and support me on the trail for two weeks). I hiked down to the border and back and started riding my bike down the gravel roads. Man, biking was so much better than hiking; I was flying. Shortly thereafter I learned otherwise. Oh, how naive I was then. I quickly learned that the desert is not flat, surprise surprise. I basically learned a lot of lessons, mostly that I’m not a good mountain biker. Up to that point I’d only done road races and hadn’t spent much time on single track. So back on the AZT I found myself pushing my bike up and downhill. I was so worried of going too fast downhill and flipping over my handlebars. So I walked. I walked more than I expected. I fell off my bike repeatedly and it broke my spirit. It got to the point that when I fell my choices were to land on a hot rock or a cactus. My legs were all scratched up and sun burnt. My thru-bike attempt was not going as planned. I was hardly saving any time biking cause I was walking the bike so much. Plus I was bummed cause I had to detour around so many areas that didn’t allow bikes like wilderness areas and Saguaro National Park. That didn’t mesh well with my purist thru-hiker self. On top of it all, I didn’t see anyone. No thru-hikers, no day hikers, nobody. How could I conduct my research when I had nobody to interview?
After about 100 road miles I decided to jump up the trail. At that point I figured my true thru was out the window. I bumped up and hiked up the Mogollan Rim. I bumped up and biked around Mormon Lake. I skipped the big ditch and bumped up to the North Rim. I was running out of time cause I had another trip already planned. I didn’t make it to the Utah border due to bad weather and decided to call it.
I went back to Flagstaff feeling like a failure. When the fall semester began I had to re-evaluate my research with my thesis chair. Long story short, the thesis eventually got completed and defended, and I got to write about what I’m most passionate about—the environment, and tie it in to another one of my passions: long-distance hiking.
Three years later and I still look back at my time on the Arizona Trail with a sour taste in my mouth. I still feel as if I failed, but now I try to focus on the positives. I took away from the 300 miles I completed a newfound love of the desert (said from a water-loving southerner) and memories of seeing parts of Arizona I never would have seen before such as Tonto National Monument, Canyon Lake, Sky Islands, and the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. The biking part was not enjoyable and I think that it would have been a much better experience if I just stuck to what I’m good at, walking for hundreds of miles. I try to remind myself that failure is just as much of a growing experience as success and accomplishment. And yes it’s hard for me to admit that I’m not good at everything.
Although most of my time on the AZT was marred by disappointment, I highly recommend checking out the Arizona Trail. People don’t say it’s like going from Mexico to Canada in one state for nothing. You’ve got deserts, red rocks, the largest ponderosa pine forest in the world, alpine tundra, and ya know, just one of the seven natural wonders of the WORLD. Everything you could want in 800 miles.
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