On the Trail Again – Magic on the AZT 2023

I have never seen a cactus in real life. As an East Coast native, I am used to lush forests, clear streams, and rhododendron thickets. All my life I have lived in North Carolina and Tennessee, “the west” seemed like a far-off dream or a foreign land. Upon my entry into the thru hiking community, I began to learn about long distance trails. After my christening on the Appalachian Trail in 2021, I discovered a world of trails – far more than I could seemingly ever hike in a lifetime. One of the trails that stuck out to me was a trail that was slowly gaining popularity, the Arizona Trail (AZT).

Where it All Started… 

I fell in love with long distance hiking while flipping through the pages of trail-themed novels. Wild by Cheryl Strayed first whet my appetite and Becoming Odyssa by Jennifer Pharr Davis made thru hiking seem like a dream that was within reach. After getting laid off from my “big girl job” in the fall of 2020, I decided to chase wholeheartedly towards my goal of becoming a thru hiker. Most dreams live high up on a shelf collecting dust, however, getting laid off allowed me to reevaluate my life and enabled me to pursue the previously unfeasible. With the time and resources to spend 6 months in the woods, March 22, 2021 – September 7, 2021, I journeyed north. 

The Maine Train on Katahdin. Gooey, Pimento, Hangman, Magic, and Truffles. September 7, 2021. Photo courtesy of Anna “Magic” McKinney.

Along the way I made lifelong friends and even fell in love. The AT changed my life in more ways than I can count, and I left the trail with the understanding that life is too short to wait for adventure to fall into your lap… You have to go out and find it. It was that life lesson that emboldened both my partner, Cade, and I to leave the corporate world and pursue careers as backpacking guides in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. 

Magic and Truffles welcoem you to the Smokies. Photo courtesy of Anna “Magic” McKinney.

Guiding: Type 2 Fun

Being a guide is a privilege and sometimes a burden. I get to spend my days backpacking through America’s most visited National Park, but I am not hiking for my own pleasure. It is my responsibility to ensure the safety and enjoyment of our clients, and while I love my job I miss the liberty of being a thru hiker. It was this sense of freedom that ultimately drove Cade and I to decide to hit the trail again.

Guiding clients in the Smokies. Photo courtesy of Anna “Magic” McKinney.

Our guiding season is roughly March – November, so we had to choose a trail that would meet our scheduling needs. We had friends who had completed the AZT and knew the weather window would roughly line up with our guiding schedule. Our company graciously agreed to a mid-season start in May, and with that our goal of thru hiking the AZT became a reality. 

Cade thru hiked the AT with his brother in 2021. When Cade and I started hiking together on the AT, that meant I also started hiking with his brother. They had assembled a rag-tag tramily that I was welcomed into, and it didn’t feel right to plan another thru hike without getting the gang back together. After lots of planning and negotiating work schedules, it was decided that Magic, Truffles, Hangman, Pimento, and She Devil would all be on the AZT together in 2023. 

It’s Not All Sunshine and Summits

I do not want to go into my second long trail disillusioned that it will be similar to my first. Most of the time hiking sucks. Looking back on my AT experience it’s easy to only remember the good times and forget about slogging through mud, crying myself to sleep at night, multiple days of rain, and shitting my pants (yes, I am indeed a “real thru hiker”). I understand that I can’t go chasing the same experience and that the AZT is a totally different trail compared to the AT. I have spent virtually no time in the desert and am used to an abundance of water and tree cover. 

Filtering water during a trail run in the Smokies. Photo courtesy of Anna “Magic” McKinney.

Fear and Self Doubt

How will my body adapt to longer water carries and constant heat? What do I do if I encounter scorpions or other creepy crawly desert creatures? What will digging a cat hole in the sand be like? What will our tramily dynamic be like during our second trek together? These are all constant worries and thoughts swirling through my head, but I know the only way to put them to rest is to go out and do the damn thing. 

March can’t come fast enough.

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Comments 3

  • China : Jan 5th

    Have fun y’all!! Can’t wait to follow along!

  • Truffles : Jan 6th

    Can’t wait to see what the gang gets up to! Truffles is my personal favorite of the gang.

  • Doug Russell : Feb 3rd

    I start my northbound AZT through hike March 16th at the border. Maybe I’ll see you guys out there. Stay safe, have fun and hike on!


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