down into Kearny after three hot days winding up and over and through the high desert in high winds and flurries of snow that pelted the sides of the tent in the morning while we scrunched deep down into the sleeping bags and waited for the sun. When it came after a couple days it was blazing blue skies without much shade outside of the afternoon shadows offering respite on the sides of great water cisterns that we’d climb ten feet up steel ladders to dunk our bottles in. Everything is precious in the desert. The water on ranch land is brought up from deep wells that often go dry and piped miles across the sandy surface from one cattle trough to the next. The troughs will often come outfitted with floating bobbers like any household toilet would have which regulate the flow as it evaporates. The cows are slow, languid, quick to startle. They congregate in clumps of 3-5 under Palo Verde and wherever small beds of grass miraculously appear. There are ponds here and there; filled with scum, algae, cow poop. The high desert cattle ranges are trampled into oblivion. Twenty roaming heads of cattle can take up hundreds of square miles and very little survives under their feet. It’s miles and miles of hoof prints, cow pies, and dust. We kick it aside to lunch, to pitch tents, to sit down anywhere. But in awhile, as with all long trails, we’re climbing again. We spend a night on a bluff overlooking the tiny mining town of Kearny, one of three original Dell Webb projects that dot the area. They’re all laid out in the same crescent shape. It looks peaceful, even charming from ten miles away and a few thousand feet higher. It’s a warm Arizona breeze...a gorgeous saturated tapestry of colors behind the silhouettes of the saguaros on the western horizon. In the morning we’ll walk a ridge line down to a trailhead and meet Sky’s family and official sag wagon. Sky was a paragliding instructor until he got cancer. The chemo caused so much nerve damage that he can’t feel much below his knees, but he’s out there on the AZT pushing around 15-17 miles per day. He smiles with enthusiasm. He knows the value of every waking minute of life. They offer us pancakes but we’ve got to meet our own support guru, our Flagstaff neighbor Craig, down at the Gila bridge. We meet a couple girls there, waiting for their parents to take them into Kearny for resupply. It’s officially hot. We wait next to a dilapidated cluster of mail boxes trying to get a bar of cell service to make sure Craig has our location. Soon enough he rolls up in the old Subaru and we’re headed for town. Kearny has a store, a pizza place, and a motel. We’re peeking through windows trying to find out if anyone will check us in until push through a door into a bar with a young lady behind a slab of plexiglass who gets everything in order. Craig brought treats. Lots of treats. Quesadillas, fruit, guacamole, IPA, etc. We sit in the shade in the courtyard and rehash the last few weeks-all the little adventures and synchronicities that inevitably become part of a thru hike. He’s also brought the new Osprey Exos that Hanne ordered from the Flagstaff REI the day before. I think one thru hike is enough for one pack. The last one was starting to fall apart at the seams. The Exos fit perfectly. We waved goodbye to Craig a couple hours later and strategized the next stretch. Into the Superstition Wilderness. It would be hot. The lowest elevations on the AZT. It would be rugged; granite-strewn trails weaving up some more insane grades with little to no shade. The general consensus at this point, even among the triple-crowners was that the first few hundred miles of the AZT are tougher than any of the other long trails in the US. Respite comes from disagreeable, fetid sources. Hitching isn’t as easy as sticking your thumb out. The water caches appear and disappear just as quickly so you can’t rely on them. Half of what you filter tastes like cows or grass or worse and it’s still better than some of the tap water you run across, but spirits are always high out here. You’re pushing your body as far as it can go and then some. You’re consistent meeting some of the most interesting people you’ve ever come across; characters with endless stories of endless adventures. This is why people do the long trails. Not just to hike, but to become immersed in a completely different paradigm that hums to a different tune. So, we stick our thumbs out at the main road in the morning and in about half an hour an old fellow picks us up and talks about his time in the mines after coming to Kearny in 1957. He’s missing the tops of most of his fingers and has stitches running up the length of his left hand. I don’t ask. We thank him kindly and head into the Superstitions. Great black steers with great black horns stand in the way. A rattlesnake hears us and gets so worked up when it raises its head that it falls back over itself and circles around. Scores of javelina dart through washes in small herds and then we come to the Gila River junction where we’re going to walk a quarter mile to filter some brown water when we come across Golden sitting in the shade under the junction sign making his cowboy coffee. We haven’t seen Golden since the high Cascades in 2018. He was all trail data and trying to yell over the wind that day. Now he’s somber, calm as a cucumber. “Think I’ll finish this one up and hop back on the CDT to get my triple crown.” Down at the river Sky has already made camp. We talk some more and take note of the teenage 4x4 party across the bank. “I’ll be sleeping too deep to notice.” We wave goodbye and walk back up another half mile where a little flat spot sits just on the side of the trail. “This’ll work”. We make dinner under the glow of headlamps while huge booms from a nearby military base and the occasional clack-clack-clack of rifles echo deep into the canyons. It doesn’t phase us anymore. We’re out in two seconds. In the morning we climb deep into the mountains. The goal is to get to a rain-water collector ten miles away before our own resources get too low. When we reach it, it’s like Shangri La. A large spigot drops liter after liter and we ‘camel up’ with a couple mountain bikers, drinking as much as we can before actually filling our bottles for the next stretch. From there it’s downhill. In two days we cover about forty miles of great red spires and formations. It’s still nothing but cactus and sun and on the third day we reach another trailhead by HWY 60. More grassy trough water, more blazing heat. The day hikers stare as we amble past. They come in tank tops with portable boom boxes and carry bottle of blue Gatorade at their sides. I’d kill for a Gatorade. We’re covered head to toe in base layers and loose fitting clothes. It’s either that or keep piling chemical sludge on your skin throughout the day, but no matter what the perceived challenges of the day, every evening feels complete. Every dinner is the best dinner. The experience is visceral. The taste and quiet grunts of gratitude are full-bodied and felt throughout each bite. Most nights are silent. A silence completely foreign to most people. It’s a silence that you feel like a blanket; a silence that you realize humans used to have. A necessary lull in motion, that intrinsic part of the cycle. Eat, walk, sleep. And dreams take on a different character as well. With such exquisite silence a dream is a theater of dimensions and knowledge is self-revelatory. This is how we used to be. In communion. Without incessant distractions and all the blind alleys that constitute an “ordinary day”. The Superstitions go on for miles. They’re massive. Tonto National Forest is massive. When we come over one pass, there’s another row of staggered columns that disappear into the distance. We’ll pass mile 300. We’ll leapfrog with a few other hikers but it’s starting to thin out. Some people have pulled ahead. Shedoobee is off with a foot injury. Hopper has met his friends in Superior. Storms are coming in. At the end of the stretch we come toward Roosevelt Lake. The grades are becoming almost arbitrary, like a group of day hikers got drunk and drew straight lines over any topography imaginable. Either that or they’ve tried to preserve original trails. Either way, we stumble our way down out of Tonto into Roosevelt Marina, grab a lunch, meet “Conan” who is also a drummer, a producer, so it’s a rare connection out there for a minute while we all sit in the little restarting talking all things music and trail before he heads back into the hills. The next people we meet are a young couple cycling from Flagstaff to Tucson. I’m fading into a food coma. Dehydration. Processed trail food. It all catches up with me and I spend the night running back and forth from our tent on the far lawn of the marina to a porta-potty. Samson and China Rock show up and we trade more stories and learn about grizzlies and waiting out snow storms in tents and all the crazy reasons that compel people to just walk for hundreds, often thousands of miles. There’s a lot of trail veterans out here. We’ve all got a word for the AZT: Brutiful.
In the morning we climb again. We push through a few more rain showers until we’re just below the summits of Four Peaks above the 2nd good-tasting Mountain water stream since March 1st. Mountain water is real water. No filter. It’s like getting a special present at the end of the day. Samson ambles in after dark and sets up right behind us. We’re on a steep hillside and there’s nowhere else to go. We trade goodnights and he takes off in the morning an hour before us. On the way down it’s bleak. The entire mountainside is just burned to a crisp. It was a car fire on the highway miles ahead that started it last year. It burned everything including trail markers that melted over black limbs of bushes. We march through it for miles. Our first site of the Mogollon Rim in the distance. A great flat plain that marks the end of the endless climbs and descents of the first half of the AZT. But up there it’s a lot of snow right now. Arizona is finally getting the precipitation it needs this year. We make it to HWY 87 and shuttle up to Payson to resupply for Pine. It’s a bit out of the way but it was either that or carry 10 days of food. We had the driver take us to the first American farm-style breakfast diner in town. It’s called “Hiker hunger”. It starts around 2-3 weeks after you get in trail and lasts until the last mile (plus a little longer) The Piñon Cafe was the best thing we’d seen in awhile. It’s another shower, laundry, communicating with people up the trail, resupply, watching the weather as we head through spring. We’ll leave for Pine in the morning. Four more days and we’ll be sitting just below the rim. It’ll be a different trail altogether once we climb up to 7k ft. Still one day at a time.