Kaibab to Coconino on Forest Roads

“No food on the bus.”

Per Bear looked at the bus driver, then down at the remaining half of his Nutella wrap. Then back to the bus driver. Then he crammed the rest of his snack into his mouth and hopped aboard.  It took almost half the trip to the South Rim Village before he managed to swallow it all. We kept thinking he was going to choke!

The rest of our time in “town” was much less eventful. The park’s general store had surprisingly reasonable prices, and we enjoyed some lunch out on the patio. At the visitor center, we charged electronics and cleaned up a little in the bathroom (still no showers since leaving San Diego).  All of a sudden, the sun had nearly reached the horizon and we still needed to hike out of the park to camp.

Back at the trailhead, Clean Sweep and Overhill had just reached the top. We high-fived and talked for a while about our amazing experiences in the Grand Canyon. The trail wound along the rim for a while on the road, then turned south and brought us back into the forest as the sky grew dark. I spent several minutes clearing enough pine cones to have enough room to lay out camp. It was another cold night, and the lights of nearby Tusayan were a tempting beacon of hot food and insulated shelter.

South Rim at sunset

Leaving the Kaibab National Forest

The day started off cold, but by the mid-afternoon we would be hot and desperate for water. And then freezing again by nightfall. Unlike north of the canyon, the forest here supported a variety of hardwoods like Oaks and Aspens. Most of the leaves had fallen, but there was still some hardy few that rasped against branches and trunks in the breeze while I sat for lunch. Looking back from where we had come, I could see the distant North Rim where we had been just two days ago.

Looking back to the North Rim

I filled up at a covered and fenced-off “tank” that was almost 1/4mi off trail, since I had heard unpleasant reports of the quality of the upcoming Russell Tank. Kirby and Per Bear decided to try the tank, still 6 miles away. As I got closer to where I expected to find a tank, I couldn’t see anything obvious. Besides the large, mucky pool that was obviously a drinking and bathing facility for a variety of domestic and wild hooved animals, that is. Glad that I had a few liters of water while Kirby and Per Bear were both down under a 1/2 liter, I wondered what kind of cruel joke it was to list a non-existent water source.

We later learned that, in Arizona, the definition of “tank” is drastically different than the metal (or maybe plastic), cylindrical, sealed vessel that I think of when I hear the word. No, in Arizona, a “tank” is a pit or small lake that people artificially dig out of the landscape so it will collect rain and run-off. It’s basically an irrigation system for cattle ranchers and wildlife managers.

The water in Russell Tank was a cloudy, pale green full of floaties of likely unspeakable origins. Despite still being 12 miles from the next “tank” on the list, none of us took any water at Russell. We had to make it to the next tank, and the water had to be better there.

We eventually crossed out of Forest land and onto a right-of-way through a ranch. The last few miles were on a dirt road, a preview of most of the rest of the trip to Flagstaff. Kirby and I were practically jogging to stay warm as darkness fell. Passing through a gate, we began to search for the “metal trough” that supposedly dispensed fairly clear water from a pipe when you depressed the float valve.  (If you don’t know what a float valve is, think of the thing in your toilet that shuts off the water when the tank is full. The things you do for water in Arizona…)

It was difficult to find in the dark, behind several berms and out of sight from the trail. There was indeed a trough, that indeed had a float valve which did in fact dispense fairly clear water. There also happened to be an extremely dead, bloated cow lying on its back less than a football field away. Awesome.

Can I handle this?

As I brushed my teeth that night, I thought for the first time about getting off trail. That thought hadn’t come to me even once on the PCT. But there I was, camped within a 1/4mi of a dead bovine, certain I was drinking its decaying flesh, shivering in the cold night air. I honestly wondered if I had the resolve to get to Mexico. But, one of the beauties of travelling through remote areas is that there is plenty of time to evaluate your feelings and make unhurried decisions.

Within ten steps the next morning, my perspective of the trail had changed. We started off in the intensely red sunrise, the trees lining the field glowing as if on fire. A timely reminder that the rewards of trail life will ALWAYS outweigh the struggles. I could feel the 3 liters of dead cow water on my back, but in that moment they seemed more appealing than endless “clean” water from the tap.

All morning we trudged along an exposed road beneath overcast skies. It was hardly inspiring, though it was quite easy walking. On one particularly long straight section with powerlines visible in the distance, I saw a herd of antelope grazing on the low shrubs that dominated the area. The road continued on and on, but I could see a hulking mountain growing slowly closer as we continued onward.

Early morning sighting of the distant Mount Humphreys

Long road walks give you plenty of time to visualize your goals

Most of the rest of the day was a blur. We watered up at a ranch that lets hikers use their water (no dead animals!) and got a call out to trail angels in Flagstaff. We continued walking on flat, uninspiring roads. Finally at the base of the mountain, I could see back to where we had started the day. The roads then started climbing up into a forest. There was another water cache in a bear box we passed with about an hour of daylight left.

Looking back to the beginning of the day. Not a whole lot of variety.

Coconino National Forest to the Rescue

We crossed the boundary in the dark, but we at least got to enjoy the sunset filtering through a forest, finally. That beautiful light helped to make up for a pretty mediocre day. Determined to shave miles off our hike to Flagstaff in the morning, we continued up along broad and amazingly regular switchbacks into the night.

I promise, the sunset was way nicer than this picture makes it look. 

When we finally set up camp and I was getting comfortable, Per Bear pointed out to me that I had set up directly beneath a widow-maker. I almost said “Fuck it, I’m too tired,” but it was actually really windy and that tree looked like it was ready to fall.

So I moved about 5 feet and called it good.

The hike into Flagstaff erased my thoughts of leaving the trail. Unlike yesterday’s barren roads, the climb over Mt Humphreys was an absolute delight. The lower elevation aspen forest changed to fragrant firs as the trail crested at the base of the Arizona Snow Bowl. The singletrack down to the road was absolutely gorgeous, winding back down through the aspens before returning to the drier environment on the lower slopes.

Sunrise view before reaching the Firs.

Though the official AZT traces a tantalizing route through the core of downtown Flagstaff, we opted for the the longer and much more scenic Equestrian Bypass. It loops around the east side of town but stays close enough to provide quick access. At the Sandy Seep trailhead, we called Tim and Melody, and about 10 minutes later Tim arrived to take us to their house for the night.

Great scenery on the Equestrian Bypass!

Lots of Food and Fun in Flagstaff

Trail Angel-ing isn’t a job, but the Varners are absolute professionals at it. Back at the house, we reunited with Squeaks who had been forced off trail with an injury. Melody fried us up some quesadillas while we gathered our thoroughly filthy laundry and started rotating showers. I was so dirty at this point that I finished my beer well before I was ready to get out of the shower. As I stepped into my fluffy robe and slippers (both embroidered with “AZT HIKER”), the scent of a baking pie wafted up the stairs.

With the afternoon already nearly gone and the prospect of a trip to the bars on Halloween, we planned for a late start the next day. Tim and Melody’s friends came over, and we shared an enormous dinner of beef stew, homemade biscuits, amazing salad, and an unbelievable pumpkin pie for desert. Afterward, Tim dropped us in town for some festive atmosphere. People were probably scratching their heads the whole night, trying to guess what the hell we were dressed up as. Maybe my new Halloween go-to will be hikertrash chic!

The next day began with a relaxed, hardy breakfast, lounging around in a bathrobe, and doing some emergency pack repair. I had discovered a huge rip in my relatively new pack, which was disappointing since I love the size and design so much. Melody turns out to be a whiz with the sewing machine, and soon I was patched up and ready for resupply.

An unpleasant surprise

As is typical when resupplying at WalMart, I bought WAY too much a lot of food. We stopped at a local outfitter that exchanged Darn Tough socks for hikers, where I bid goodbye to the socks I had hiked in since Lone Pine (~1000 mi). We were just contemplating getting back on trail when Tim started talking about dinner plans. Could this be happening?

It took all of about 30 seconds for us to decide to take an unplanned zero just a week into the hike.

The Varners’ hospitality was too good to pass up. We lounged away the afternoon, getting another shower and plenty of beer drinking done. I finally got around to booking a flight back to Minnesota while Tim and Melody went all out preparing another incredible dinner. We feasted on homemade pizzas with another fresh pie for desert! Melody and Tim regaled us with stories of their accomplished career as Ultra runners, including trips to the formidable Hard Rock 100, Mogollon Monster, and other incredible feats of endurance.

After another glorious sleep in the Varner’s loft turned hiker hostel, they saw us properly fed before departing for the trail. Uncharacteristically, I was the last one ready. With my moments of weak resolve over the past few days coupled with the luxurious comfort of our stay with the Varners, I was honestly somewhat hesitant to get back on the trail. I knew I would get back in the groove, but I was starting to feel all the miles catch up with me.

Look no farther for the best Trail Angels on the AZT!

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